I remember my mother looking at me with concern as I entered a serious relationship in my early twenties. “You’re not going to just get married and stay at home raising children, are you?” she asked with genuine concern and urgency. “We worked too hard for that—for all your talent to be wasted.”
This sentiment was an echo of the messages I received from the all-girls school I attended. Young women of my generation were regularly exhorted that we could do anything; that our gender shouldn’t limit our aspirations. Interestingly, in talking with my male peers who attended the prestigious all-boys school down the road, I discovered they did not receive similar, regular affirmations.
At first, my female friends and I experienced the truth of what we had been told. Experiences of success and opportunity throughout our early years of school, university, and the first rungs of the career ladder seemed to prove it was possible.
Yet as we face the prospect of partnership and family life of our own, we’re finding that possibilities turn into false promises. As we progress into the uncharted waters of adult relationships, cultural norms and “personal choices,” it seems that young New Zealand women are able to be as successful as any man—until they reach an age where it is expected that they must make a choice about how much they are willing to sacrifice to start and sustain a family.
This moment of reckoning is well documented by Australian political journalist and writer Annabel Crabb in her 2014 book “The Wife Drought – Why women need wives and men need lives.” In it, she references a study of the top male and female CEOs in Australia. All male CEO’s with children interviewed had stay-at-home wives; whereas none of the female CEOs with children had stay-at-home husbands. Furthermore, every single one of those female CEOs still identified themselves as the primary caregiver. Unsurprisingly, when asked if having a stay at home spouse was important to their success at work, the male CEOs all replied in the affirmative.
I’m certain these findings won’t come as a surprise to many. It feels logical, in that it describes the reality of the world we live in. It is so close to home that we often fail to stop and question: why is it that women disproportionately shoulder the responsibilities of caring for children, even when they are in the workforce?
The incongruity of this report of male and female CEOs when it comes to home life makes stark the difference in our wider cultural expectations of “men’s work” and “women’s work.” While biological realities preclude men from shouldering the responsibilities of pregnancy and feeding in the first few months of a child’s life, there is nothing gender specific about the care that a child needs after that point. Still, there seems to be a persistent cultural expectation that working mothers should raise children as though they weren’t work- ing, and work as though they didn’t have children, with no correlating expectation of male responsibility.
The number of women in New Zealand businesses’ senior management teams hit an all-time low of 18% in 2018, as reported in the Grant Thornton International’s annual Women in Business report. “The number of businesses with no women in senior management roles at all has increased significantly,” and “in 2018, less than one in four members of the boards of New Zealand’s top 100 companies was female.”
Conversely, we don’t even know how many men consider themselves the primary caregiver, because Stats NZ doesn’t have a category for this role, and doesn’t collect specific information about it. At the very least, the Household Labour Force Survey tells us that only 3% of men who are unemployed consider themselves a primary caregiver of children, compared to 19% of unemployed women.
While the first stage of my life has been full of largely gender- neutral opportunity, as I speak with women of my age entering the second stage of their career, I see that these trade-offs of work and home life are issues that women are expected to navigate with far more seriousness than their male counterparts.
Charlotte Best is a Crown Prosecutor working in Manukau District Court. She’s noticed the predominance of men at the judicial level (in 2015, only 29.9% of New Zealand Judges were female)—and she couldn’t help but notice that 90% of the administration staff (particularly personal assistants) remained female.
Another of my peers, Divya (name changed at her request), is navigating the pressures of the medical field, working as an surgical registrar in Auckland Hospital. Although she finds there are no overt differences in work expectations placed on females compared to their male colleagues, she talks of an underlying expectation that women will have more responsibility at home. This comes up in the form of questions asked of female registrars and advice about how they might be able to balance their career with family—she says that her male colleagues say they don’t face such questions, and are not offered similar impromptu advice.
With a job that averages 60+ hours of work a week on top of night shifts, extra training, and studies, it is unsurprising that women may start to feel overstretched if they are expected to take the lead
at home as well. 70% of female doctors in their thirties exhibited signs of burn-out in 2016, and many have reported experiences of discrimination for having children. Women remain under- represented at specialist levels and in surgical work.
Is there something specific about women that means that they don’t desire prominent professional positions or high salaries as much as men? Commonly proffered answers to these gaps tend to fall into one of two camps: either “men are awful” or “women are hopeless”—a paradigm articulated by Crabb in her book. Examples of these simplistic arguments are that men simply prefer to promote other men because they don’t like working with women, or that women just need to be more serious about their own careers and “lean in.”
While there are any number of anecdotal stories that continue to prop up these simplified invectives against “bad people” making “bad choices,” Crabb points to the broader, more complex influence of our cultural narratives surrounding “masculine” and “feminine” responsibilities, which affect men and women’s expectations around work, children, success, and family life.
A 2018 report commissioned by the Ministry for Women examined the effect of parenthood on NZ employment and income. It found that women experience on average a 4.4% decrease in hourly wages upon becoming mothers; in contrast, men experience no significant decrease in wages post becoming a father.
This maps onto Crabb’s research, where she refers to the “mother- hood penalty,” and goes one step further to describe a “daddy bonus,” citing research that men’s earnings actually tend to increase when their family grows. This phenomenon aligns with societal attitudes that view men with children as responsible, needing to “step up” and provide, making them likely to become more committed to their job, whereas mothers are viewed as less available, more distracted, and more likely to be a liability once children enter the picture.
But this shouldn’t be considered great news for men. Even as society has allowed women to display more typically-masculine qualities and enter the workforce (albeit, not always easily), we have not simultaneously encouraged and expected men to take seriously their capabilities and desires to care and be present in the lives of their families.
In her book, Crabb points out that in order for women to have a partner who can pick up the slack at home, men need to be allowed the flexibility to ease up at work to enjoy parenthood, with its corresponding responsibilities and rewards—in her words: “women need wives and men need lives.” She relays stories like the man who found it almost impossible to get his employer to grant him flexible hours so he could do the school pickup, something that was offered as a matter of course to his female colleagues.
In 2013, time spent with each parent across two-parent-house- holds in New Zealand with all children aged under 12 was analysed by Stats NZ. Children spent 50% of their time with their mother only, whereas “father only” time was just 8% of the total.
The danger inherent in ignoring the value of unpaid labour is a theme developed extensively by New Zealand’s own Marilyn Waring: acclaimed author, economist and United Nations consultant. A for- mer MP, Waring argues that our current system of measuring gross domestic product (GDP) ascribes value only to paid activity, thereby excluding and devaluing much of the work and labour that predominantly occupies women worldwide.
“Recognition of workers is the problem, as opposed to the concept of unemployment,” Waring says. While excluded from being counted as “production,” the work of raising and caring for children is just as important as “cars or crops” and should be seen as such.
This is true for my generation of women, as well as men who are encouraged to prioritise their career as a way of creating a good life. My mother saw my future potential and possibilities as a direct result of decades of hard work by her and waves of fellow feminists before her. Naturally, she fears passing the torch on, only for it to be dropped.
As a 28 year old stay-at-home mum, Jessi Curwell feels this pressure. She shares that the same “you can do anything!” messages at our high school spurred her to complete her tertiary studies but also contributed to a sense that her decision to focus on mother- hood is a less valuable choice. “People look at you with pity, as if to say, ‘oh, you could have done so much!’”
Jessi’s husband Luke is currently training to be a surgeon. They made a joint decision as a family to prioritise Luke’s medical career—a job with earning potential that could support their whole family, but would also require commitment of hours and necessitate moves around the country, making any competing work commitments difficult.
Although they decided together it was best for Jessi to be at home raising their 18 month old son, interestingly, it is Luke who often feels he is the one missing out. “He pines for more time with our child. He would love to be around more but the demands of his job don’t make it possible.”
At that point of the conversation I thought about Luke’s female colleagues like Divya, who face expectations they will have to balance both.
When Raewyn Soakai found out she was unexpectedly pregnant five years ago, everything changed. Then 23 years old, she was finishing her study and looking forward to entering the workforce: “I always wanted to be a career woman. That was it.”
Coming from a family of Tongan and Sāmoan background, Raewyn recalls that her three brothers dropped a lot of their own commitments to support her and be involved in caring for their nephew. She gets emotional when she talks about her brothers making the decision to be involved in her son’s life as if they were his parents, and she acknowledges this is supported by cultural expectations that the responsibility for raising children is shared within a community. “It takes a village to raise a child, and I understand why a lot of women in a western context may feel the pressure to be all things to all people, because they don’t have others to rely on to pick up the slack at home.”
Are these traditional “role” expectations of working and caring shifting across generations? While my mother can feel secure that my peers and I have internalised the expectation that success in almost any career is open to us, do we have the same confidence that our male peers are any more open to the possibility of being a “wife?” Is the next generation of female CEOs any more likely to have partners who are happy to take the lead when it comes to school runs, homework help, days off to be with sick kids, and endless meal prep?
There are at least signs of acceptance that men can do it. Clarke Gayford has been a helpful cultural touchstone, and every year there are profile pieces in newspapers about men chucking in their day job to look after the kids. But acceptance is still a long way away from a change in expectations. Charlotte reflects on the possibilities, musing that she isn’t aware of any females in her firm having stay-at- home husbands: “In my career, people are very fortunate to have the money for day-care and nannies—it’s not an issue of staying home, but finding an entirely different source to help out.”
Crabb suggests that immense structural change is required for cultural change: by changing laws and practices to allow for specific paternity leave, undoing the “male breadwinner” model, and shifting businesses away from measuring productivity in billable units of time.
This structural change requires concurrent shifts in our personal expectations and choices. Crabb notes that the event that brought about the highest increase in stay-at-home fathers in the United States was the Global Financial Crisis, a shock that made many high-earning men redundant and unable to find work. Women who had left careers to be stay-at-home mothers returned to work as the primary earner, and studies show a statistically significant number of men, when given the chance to take a break from their career and focus on home life, embraced their caregiving role long-term.
There is a joy, pride, and reward to be found in both work and family life; and we shouldn’t expect that either gender should miss out on half of the picture. Women should not be expected to juggle and eternally feel they are falling short, while men are either forced to miss out on the joy—or allowed to skip out on the emotional load—of home life. Caring for those we love is a beautiful part of be- ing human, whether male or female. As women have been entreated to lean in to work, men can be encouraged that there’s a lot of life that needs them to lean out.