I’m clearly on a roll here. Thought I’d jot down a few reflections on a brilliant two part documentary on BBC2 I managed to catch most of: The trouble with working women. Managed to pull off the neat trick of wading into hugely controversial waters, remaining light and entertaining, and raising really important thought-provoking issues, even if ultimately I’m not sure they were the ones the programme makers thought they were raising. It turns out that the trouble is less with working women, and more with working mothers. To conclude, as they did, by reflecting on whether women can ‘have it all’ and concluding it was all about women multi-tasking where men focused just on career seemed a step back from the level of reflection they’d actually achieved during the documentary, where one of the most acute questions posed was why female surgeons seemed to rise to the top of their profession at the expense of a family life, whereas the top male surgeon they interviewed spoke candidly about the anti-social hours he worked yet had a large family. The unspoken answer to the question seemed to be ‘yes, you can have it all, as long as your wife is prepared to run around like a headless chicken keeping all the balls in the air while you do it’.
The whole thing was full of suprising convention-challenging moments. The things that stayed with me were one of the founders of Spare Rib noting that they got it badly wrong because none of them had children; the suprisingly reactionary founder of the women’s refuge movement asking why we’re obsessed with senior executive posts when trying to evaluate whether we have equality in society or not; and the female executive of a small business stating tat she wouldn’t hire women of childbearing age because they’re inherently risky- likely to disappear on maternity leave, and that business would fight paternity leave provision tooth and nail because they need men of that age to continue to be predictable at being in work irrespective of having a family.
I was left wondering if the real issue was parenthood and why it is that women are socially conditioned to be the ones left holding the baby when the music stops. Can things change? Yes, with enlightened employers like the one they showcased, which basically takes the line that their staff are their prime resource and selling point to the customer, so staff retention is a high priority. On that basis they offer 9 months paid maternity leave, encourage flexible working, reduction of hours to work around childcare commitments, and do all of this with no negative impact on promotion prospects. The female executive they spoke to said when she was promoted to her current post she was pregnant and working part-time. Now if only we could encourage the church to put it’s money where it’s mouth is and follow best industry practice…
And as with the fight for equality for women within the church, I suspect focusing on top jobs and glass ceilings really misses the point. The issues that effect most women are bullying and harrasment and institutional issues connected with maternity leave and childcare. Counting how many women bishops there aren’t misses the point.