City Kids speaks to Christine Armstrong, author of The Mother of All Jobs, to get her take on whether the workplace is changing for the better.
The theme for International Women’s Day this year is #BalanceForBetter, celebrating the work of women, while calling for a more gender-balanced world. The gender pay gap is now a common talking point as stories reveal how men and women have been treated differently over the years.
Only recently, Google’s former UK head revealed she once had to hire a male executive on double her salary. The right to ask for flexible working, which is, incidentally, relevant to men and women, came into force almost two decades ago, but only a small proportion of the UK workforce actually takes the plunge. And still, women are made redundant while on maternity leave, or they return to work to find to find their role isn’t the same as it was.
How did we get to this stage, where many women feel overwhelmed while striving to have it all?
We took the 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. male breadwinner model – think The Tiger Who Came to Tea – that assumed Mummy was at home to care for Sophie and zoo visitors, and do the shopping, washing and cleaning. And then we added lots of things. We added costs, as house prices quadrupled in twenty years, to all the adults, who normally work to pay the bills. We also added ‘always on’ as a lot of people are connected to work from when they wake until when they sleep. Then we added more out-of-home time as we moved a bit further away from our families and lengthened our commutes. We left in the fact that women are still more responsible for childcare, generally, and the house, than men. The structures that care for our kids was left unchanged. Nursery care is extortionate, and schools still finish mid-afternoon, with kids getting three months of holiday a year.
Piss, I’ve just depressed myself.
What’s your message to the Sheryl Sandberg’s [Facebook COO & founder of Leanin.org] of the world?
It is great to be positive and encouraging, and to support other women. It is well-intentioned and designed to ensure more women get to the top so we can change things. But the unintended consequence is that families all over the world are feeling like failures. They tried leaning in, getting the best childcare they could afford and being better organised, but they still can’t make it work. I worry that, if we only hear from women at the very top of their professions, in terms of seniority and income, we miss out on hearing from millions of other families who can’t afford professional support (nannies, cleaners, housekeepers), can’t take control their own time and are finding it unbelievably tough going.
I want to say to those women and their partners: it’s not you and your family that can’t do this. The system wasn’t designed to work this way and if we keep saying everything is peachy, then we’ll never get around to changing it.
What is the biggest barrier to improving the work environment for women and parents?
There isn’t one barrier: you have to look at childcare hours, availability and costs, the lack of flexible options in most work, the mismatch between work and school days and our cultural expectations around what demonstrates ‘commitment’ at work. Too often that is judged on the total number of hours worked. And in a world which is always on, you’ll burn out if you work every hour of the day and try to care for a family. If I had to focus on just one area, I would look at the total number of hours people work. Not their contractual hours – which often look perfectly reasonable on paper – but the actual numbers of hours they are connected to work – and figure out how to manage that.
What advice would you have for someone wanting to talk to their boss about flexible working?
I cite Karen Mattison of Timewise here: describe the benefits that you bring before the hours that you work. For example, I will deliver X and Y and Z on time and on budget. I will be in the office for three days a week and work from home, being fully contactable, on Monday and Friday.
What more can be done to bridge the gender pay gap?
We need to change the way we work for both men and women so that everyone can work in a focused and highly productive way, but also turn off and do other things when they are not working. Too often we celebrate people who are seen to work many, many hours, even if many of those hours are not productive and their tired, stressful reactions to things may not deliver the best answers.
One thing I want to see more work on is how we use technology. Too often people say they cannot switch off their electronic devices because they may ‘block’ progress on a sale or a project. We need to use technology better so that things can move forward within a team without everyone always having to be engaged all the damned time.
Friends just moved to work in Denmark and are astonished to find everyone starts at 8 a.m. and leaves work at 3 or 4 p.m. to collect kids and have dinner with them. Yet the OECD says that Nordic countries are 10-20% better off in terms of GDP becausethey enable more mums to work. We see letting people leave work early as an indulgence when the irony is that we could work fewer hours and actually do better as a country, and within our own businesses and households.
Why aren’t men judged in the same way as women?
Many people are struggling to come to terms with the fact that the male breadwinner model many of us grew up with – when, if mums did work, they tended to work in lower paid/more local roles – doesn’t really work anymore if you want to live in the kind of place your parents could live in on one income. We don’t have the social support to enable parents to both work and care for their kids: for example, early years care is extortionate in this country and pushes many women out of work, then making them ineligible for the 30 free hours during term time when they could get it.
Our current leaders in business and politics have tended to live and thrive in the old model and don’t fully appreciate the pressures of the way we work now. Even women I interview in their 50s and 60s who have had good careers say that they had the advantage of being able to leave the office at 5 p.m. and then not be interrupted at home. They report how much more difficult it got after email, computer/laptops at home and BlackBerries came in.
I always say though that, having interviewed a lot of men, they are not the winners in this either. Many younger men know the way their dads worked won’t work for them and want to be more involved at home but find their work places unsupportive of them. Older men often resent having to be ‘the breadwinner’. If both genders are to work, both must also be able to care.
Do you think you’ve found the balance of work and parenting?
This stuff is like dieting. One day you eat cod and salad and feel like you’re on it and the next you accidentally wolf down a cheeseburger and chips, followed by a box of Lindt truffles. The truth is that we have three young kids and run two businesses… When my parents took our kids before Christmas for a week it was mind-blowing. We couldn’t believe how much time and energy we had.
Every day, our children rightly demand our time and attention, and giving it to them is always a compromise between their needs and everything else we want and need to do. That said, I feel very lucky to spend so much time around home and the girls’ school. I do drop-offs and pick-ups most days, I am fully embedded in the week’s schedule of clubs, playdates and homework – and that is very different to when I held a full-time corporate role. Aside a student babysitter who helps cover pick-ups and swimming classes once or twice a week, my husband and I share the childcare between us.
Do you think anything significant will change for women in the work place in the next 10 years?
If – big if – we keep talking loudly about the challenges of the current system (for men and women) and the research that shows we can be more productive in less time, then I am optimistic we can move to fewer working hours, but more productive ways of working. If we spout the same old rubbish about just working harder and women ‘choosing to have babies’ as part of their ‘lifestyle’, nothing will change.