Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Back in the kitchen?

A new study says people increasingly believe that family life suffers if a woman works full-time. Both men and women have changed their views on the issue. But why is the criticism aimed only at women and not at men?

Family life can suffer just as much if the man is away at work. But that possibility is seldom commented on. This carries more than a whiff of new attempts to force women out of the workplace and back into the kitchen (or nursery) where they belong.

The study says that in the mid-1990s 51 per cent of men and 50 per cent of women agreed a woman working full-time wouldn't damage family life. Now the figures are 42 per cent of men and 46 per cent of women.

Likewise only 54 per cent of women now think a job adds to their financial and social independence, as opposed to 65 per cent in 1991. But is that their genuine belief or are they coming under mounting pressure to stay at home and give more attention to little Emily or the dirty washing?

Considering workplaces make more and more provision for people's family lives, and that other employees are increasingly sympathetic to the problems of sick children, doing the school-run or other domestic emergencies, it seems odd that women increasingly think family life is being damaged. I can't help thinking there are other factors involved.

On the other hand, many women are genuinely disillusioned with the potential of the workplace for their personal fulfillment. Long hours, heavy workloads, monotonous routines and unpleasant colleagues are making them think twice about their commitment to paid work. If an opportunity arises to quit, they often grab it with relief.

It seems to me that what's really damaging family life is not women (or men) in full-time work but the rising cost of living - particularly housing costs - that means couples are both forced into the workplace to make ends meet. Family life is bound to suffer from this mutual inability both to look after children properly and to have enough health-preserving downtime.

Sorry, a rather skimpy reply to Quickroute's tag on the Film-Of-Your-Life meme - but food for thought anyway! Let's see now. To play the world-weary but mischievous Nick - who else but Bill Nighy? To be the simultaneously sexy and brainy Jenny - Jennifer Saunders (Janis Joplin would have been good too!). To be my ailing but plucky sister Heather - Meryl Streep. And to be my elderly but combative mum Audrey - it has to be Patricia Routledge (from Keeping Up Appearances). A blockbuster in the making, don't you think? I won't tag anyone else, but if you want to share your own cast list, feel free! Now who could play Baino, I wonder?

Ah, Baino has given us the answer - Dawn French. Nice one!


  1. Statistics and the manipulation of same are an ongoing problem. We can just about approve or disprove any data.
    I think desire for material gain has driven the two-income family to a nearly unbearable degree of stress. If they sat down and did a cost/satisfaction analysis they would quickly see that they could let go of the second car, child care, mansion house and have a better life.
    Though also, Nick, we have to remove ourselves from the monetary advantage when career enjoyment is in the picture.
    Satellite offices in the home are also becoming a new option for many people I know, including myself.
    But so many are swept up in the complications of more and better and brands and lose track of how simple life can be. If we want it to be.

  2. www - Indeed, if we had a good think about what we really need as opposed to what's fashionable or impressive, we might find we need a lot less than we assume. We should all be simplifying our increasingly complex, treadmill lives.

  3. I will gladly stay in the kitchen if her indoors goes outdoors and keeps the fridge full - ouch! - just got slapped - retraction pending moderator approval...

  4. my colleague comes to work to get away from the kids - it keeps her sane she says :-)I think you've made some very interesting points especially how people always blame the mother. It's hard to win sometimes when you are a mother, people are always at the ready to fire criticisms.

  5. I look forward to my wife returning to work in a few years. Personally I look at it as an opportunity to possibly instigate a career change for myself. I also think there should be a whole lot of fact rather than statistics bandied about causing emotive knee jerk reactions. For one thing the concept of statistical significance is not one widely understood in the populace, it's very easy to state that A does 17% more work than B but if the test population used to generate the statistics is small this number can be statistically insignificant (in other words falls within expected error bounds and therefore conveys no useful information)

  6. There are still differing expectations of men and women. I agree with WWW, more flexible working arrangments and a close look at what the real financial priorities are pays dividends.

    I have worked part time since having the boys and this has worked really well. I took four weeks off work to care for the boys this summer and yet felt really guilty for the two days I put them into childcare so that I could maintain my business.

  7. Quicky - Tch tch how politically incorrect! I can reveal that I'm quite happy to go the supermarket and stock up the fridge....

    Conor - Mothers are always expected to do the lion's share of looking after the kids, whereas fathers can slob around watching football and that's okay.

    Thrifty - That sounds exciting. A different line of work now and then can be stimulating. And Jenny uses stats a lot, so she's always wising me up to all the ways they can be misused!

    Hulla - Mothers are made to feel guilty in so many ways over childcare. Whatever they do, they can't win. But I think as long as children grow up happy and capable and responsible, that's all that matters.

  8. I was only home with my kids for 2 years before going back to work. Frankly I couldn't wait and whilst I felt guilty about childcare, I was going stir crazy at home. Then being a widow, I've had to be breadwinner and housewife. Family life as not suffered as a consequence and I've learned many things that I probably would have otherwise relied upon a man to do for me. Although I still have incredible trouble with programming DVRs and Telly. I think as long as you're working for the right reasons and maintain a lifestyle balance and of course, have quality time with the kids, it will work. I also think it's REALLY important that the workplace is family friendly for both men and women. Funnily, women who have to 'go home' to tend to a sick child are looked upon more favouably than men who opt to do the same. Stereotypes abound apparently.

  9. Baino - Good that you don't think your family life has suffered in any way from being at work. Refreshing that you admit staying at home with the kids was just not enough. And yes, isn't it strange that men who opt to care for sick kids are still looked at quizzically?

  10. Well there's certainly diversity in your family for sure - from Meryl Streep to Patricia Routledge. I'd like to be a fly on the wall at a family dinner! ;-)

  11. Quicky, we don't often get together as we're all so scattered - and my sister is now barely mobile. We're all very different and in theory we should have scorching arguments but in practice we get over-polite and play down our differences - except me and Jenny that is.

  12. Most women don't have the option of staying home even if they want to, as you say, Nick. There's a huge backlash against the gains made by feminists to get women into the public sphere. Too many folks are eager to get them back into the kitchen.
    Such is patriarchy.

  13. You're right, Medbh, the backlash continues, stealthily but often effectively. On the other hand, women who've gained a bit of freedom won't give it up without a fight.

  14. I never cease to find this issue frustrating, but it is especially weighing on my mind as a newly pregnant, working woman.

    Family members and friends are continually asking me if I will continue my PhD or stop working, but I don't hear any questions pointed at hubby about his employment - in spite of the fact that his erratic work schedule is far more disruptive to family living than my "work when, where and how you like" job situation.

    I agree wholeheartedly that raising a family is a valuable full-time job, but perhaps the real problem isn't the fact that women are going to work - but the fact that many are expected to maintain the same level of (often unshared) household responsibility they did before they went to work in the first place?

    Sorry for the rant, Nick, but this one has been bothering me since I read it in the paper on Friday!

  15. FG - Absolutely, why should you give up your PhD or work? Why shouldn't Max make a few adjustments? Surely an enlightened family would step in to help out with the childcare and enable you to carry on with your life outside the home? After all, a PhD is invaluable for future work prospects and if you postpone it, chances are you'll never finish.