There have been a number of stories recently that have piqued my interest as a father. A couple of weeks ago, Guardian family ran a piece about the lip service paid by fathers to sharing the burden of childcare. I have to say that in my experience of this, I share some of the opinions of the writer, and I have experienced many a group during the week with my two under-5s where the dominant sex is always women. There are some fathers I know who have stepped out of full time employment, but the majority don’t – instead they talk about the ‘sacrifice’ of making it home to (say) bath their kids and put them to bed, and of making up time with them at the weekend. Some men I know can’t even be bothered, it seems, to make it up at the weekend.
On a totally different track, but equally serious in a world where the two female finalists on The Apprentice are touting business plans promoting baking and botox, the BBC covered Jade Beall’s project to change the perception of the post-pregnancy female body. We seem to have been gradually shifting the amount of superficiality in the western world that we’re prepared to live with (i.e. we’re living with more and more), and a significant problem has always been the value placed upon the physical aspects of a woman. Are you listening, John Inverdale. Like our obsession with the connection between material possession and happiness, the connection between a woman’s beauty and the interest society places in her is something that the Beall work – or the confessions of Dustin Hoffman – are likely to do anything about.
But most relevant for me has been the emerging revelations of Yvette Cooper about the way her employers treated her whilst she was on maternity leave from the Communities department. The story will emerge again, I’m sure, when her full interview goes out on Woman’s Hour on August 16. I have had direct experience of Ms Cooper in the past; she delivered a keynote speech at a conference I attended when she was the Minister for Planning in the early part of the last decade. She was a strong minister, well liked and came across as warm and human. I’ve admired her since, and her admissions about her experience of maternity leave only serve to strengthen that feeling.
As a man, I’ve been casually aware of women leaving the place in which I work for months on end. On their return, speculation is often rife as to whether they’ll go part-time or be really up to their old post, almost as if this is some kind of expectation; the assumption is that perhaps their dedication to work is somehow diminished by bringing life into the world. Having now witnessed my own partner in this situation, and the appetite she retains to continue ambitiously in her career, my stupid male assumptions are all wrong. What’s more depressing is that many employers act in a male way and have also got stupid male assumptions (even if many colleagues and managers are women) and seem to want to treat returning women as Ms Coopers employers treated her.
There are obvious repercussions to treating a woman returning to work after any length of maternity leave as some kind of soiled product with her interests firmly outside of a successful career – her future job prospects, the relationship with colleagues who hold dumb perceptions, the trials she may have to go through to prove her value again and the damage that such processes might have on any working relationships of value.
But further, in my family, I have stepped out of full time employment to spend an equal proportion of my time as my partner caring for the children; time that our society still tends to impose fully on the woman. As a result, I have a more limited income by virtue of working part time. Our choice is to maintain that pattern of work-life balance that puts both of us equally responsible for childcare. Our quality of life is also dependent on the incomes that my partner and I can pull in through our part time roles. If a woman’s income is to be threatened by demotion, redundancy or lower pay – crowbarred in under the blanket of maternity leave, on the premise of stupid male assumptions – then that potentially also threatens the type of family set up – like ours – that isn’t primarily dependent on the full time employment and income of the male. And gender inequality continues. As we all are secretly aware anyway.