The idea that if a woman has a family and a high-powered or demanding career, then she is trying to ‘have it all’ – which heavily implies ‘having the impossible’ – is stubbornly persistent. It is not something we have ever told men, who have balanced world-leading positions as well as children in their families with ease for centuries.
According to the UN, only 21.8 per cent of national parliamentarians worldwide in 2014 are female. Unfortunately, this chimes with what we’ve found elsewhere: in almost every sphere, the representation of women seems to reach its upper limit at around 22 per cent and then stop rising, be that in journalism, law, board level management or politics. Discrimination begins at school, with those debating societies that label girl pupils intellectually inferior for nothing more than their gender. It festers in universities, where student nights called Freshers Violation are advertised with pictures of unconscious girls having their knickers yanked down and Uni Lad is standard reading. It then solidifies in the workplace, where outings to strip clubs in City jobs are routine and the unspoken rule is that two weeks’ maternity leave is all you need if you want to progress.
To attempt to battle this ‘lad culture’ and its ramifications while navigating a career yourself as a young woman is unspeakably difficult. From a personal point of view, every article that I write for my usual job at the Guardian is invariably met with at least one male commenter telling me to ‘calm down, dear’, or to ‘get over myself’, referring to me as ‘little missy’, or suggesting that I need a ‘pat on the head’. Male readers will often refuse to engage with a debate that I open on the basis of my gender. I am perpetually taken less seriously than my male peers. In my first year of journalism, I was told by a male colleague of the same age that women my age should always be second choices behind male applicants for every employer, because – and I quote – ‘you all just want to leave and have babies in your twenties and thirties anyway’.
It is doggedly exhausting to have to tell someone, again and again, that merely by virtue of owning a womb, it does not mean that one desperately wants to procreate. At least half of my female friends have already made the choice not to have children. Some, sadly, are put off by the hostility towards family life in their workplace – but most just don’t want to raise kids at all. The idea that women are ‘naturally’ more inclined toward the private sphere is not only completely erroneous but it is insulting and demeaning to these women and an enabler of sexism in our society. It says to the employers who refuse to provide adequate maternity and paternity leave, or provide creches on-site, or secretly discriminate against young women in their recruitment: ‘Don’t worry about it. Carry on. The private and the public spheres are mutually exclusive when women are involved. They should accept that they will always have to make that choice – and move out the way so that men can take their jobs instead.’
I disagreed with almost every word of Belinda Brown’s article, but the part that I most disagreed with was the idea that women in the workplace somehow damage opportunities for men. For this, we have to accept that the workplace should be an exclusively male domain and women are merely unwanted additions to it, the gammy Lego pieces in the box of previously perfect bricks. In fact, workplaces that embrace diversity tend to be more innovative and more in tune with their consumers: a recent Forbes study found that 85 per cent of managers agreed diversity within their workplace was the driving factor for creativity, through a wider pool of perspectives and ideas.
Feminism is and always has been about choice. It is about creating the environment where women are socially and financially equal to men, so that both people in a partnership can make an informed choice about whether one would like to stay at home with the children or both would like to work, or whether either want children at all. Signing up to completely unproven theories about one sex being more ‘naturally inclined’ towards homemaking than the other only fosters a sense that women should stay where they have been forced to stay for hundreds of years.
While we see big companies like Facebook and Apple taking steps to widen their maternity and paternity leave policies and provide adoption leave for both male and female employees, on the other side of the spectrum we are also unfortunately seeing a fringe group of women and men attempting to drag us back into the principles of the 1950s. Of course we should value family rearing as much as we do career building, and this is another cultural change we continue to fight for. Presuming that every woman in a top job secretly wants to go home with a baby, however, is naive and backward. Choice and opportunity for women so that they can build their own lives in any way they like, in the same way that men are permitted, is the ultimate aim of feminism. To oppose that is masochistic madness.