Gender Equality: Give Women The Right Not To Choose

Another year, another International Women's Day. As long as I have been watching, alongside the undoubted ongoing struggles, each IWD has recorded significant advancements for women. Interestingly, this is more noticeable in the developing world - where women have been acknowledged for their special skills - than in the gender neutral world of the West where real equality continues to elude us.

However a number of recent events have lead me to believe that we may be in line for a quantum leap, a paradigm change, a SHIFT. After a century or more of activism, feminism has given birth to the Men's Movement. In the past year alone we have celebrated the first International Men's Day, Men Only Fashion Week as well as a Men's Hour on Radio 5, established after it was discovered that 40 percent of listeners to Woman's Hour are male? Each one has been welcomed with derision and fear from the majority of commentators, then met in turn with a solid response from the organisers: Men too, they say, have a right to some special attention. Or is it a need?

For some years now we have been aware of the vulnerabilities of the 'stronger' sex. Lower academic achievements; loss of a clear role in relationships; shorter lives augmented by much higher suicide rates than women. The stress -- arising from expectations of social dominance, inadequately resourced by low self-esteem -- takes its toll.

Add to that the evidence emerging from brain science, such as that described in the Human Givens Project, that men are more emotional -- that is, they are more prone to decontexualised emotional reactions to events -- than women and the stage is set for a full scale rewriting of gender in adult developmental needs.

Does this, in some way, mark a coming of age for women in Western society? I'm not pointing here to a swing of the pendulum: although some women, having fought long and hard against gender inequalities their whole life, would like nothing better than to see women rise above men, particularly in the workplace.

My interest is rather in whether the coming levelling of the playing field will allow more women to acknowledge difference and distinction. Will women feel less bound by the work place norms which are, de facto, masculine? Will they feel free to develop a feminine equivalent, now that equality is established de jure and men are beginning to show signs of strain? Will they allow men a new role in the home -- traditionally the woman's domain?

Here is a possible scenario -- one I have been nurturing since leaving school, and in which I know I'm not alone. Girls emerging from full-time education have two things to consider: their vocational potential and their family ambitions. (For family, please read not only children but any person an individual chooses to look after). Only a small minority think, from the outset, that they are going to choose one above the other. The majority, for economic reasons, have little choice but to do both. In the current culture that means juggling, stressing, doubting, resenting -- a lifetime of compromises broken up with occasional highs and lows.

Children are raised through child-care schemes, relationships are constantly at breaking point as parents have little time for each other, communities die for lack of family participation and democracy is reduced to a vote every four years -- if you manage to get to the polling station on the day. Work-life balance, as we know it, is work with a bit of life (mostly consuming stuff and media) at the edges.

Quite early in life, most have to choose a strong emphasis either way. Mothers who put raising children first have to sacrifice a career. Mothers who put their careers first have to sacrifice their families. I have yet to meet one of the first group who don't angst about social status or wasted talents: I've yet to meet one of the second who don't experience guilt for their children or themselves about the lack of attention they can give each other.

The sum total is a dysfunctional society with most parents feeling torn and too many children lost in a world of adult craving that does not understand their needs. Many find themselves alienated to the point of despair but most submit to the trance of technology and are none the wiser. We count the social cost of all this every day.

All in the name of work (in order to consume) and economic growth.

Imagine now a world in which women -- and men -- had a right NOT to choose. Not to give up expecting a fulfilling life of work AND all the time you need to bring up your children and care for your dependents. At the moment the reason this can't work is because of our standards around  working hours, with the resulting pay and career structure, all of which have been designed around 20th-century men -- the kind who had little or no interest in participating in care. Till now, women have had to become like men to succeed in the world of work.

How could women play it differently if they began to believe that they had the psycho-social advantage: the better insight into what we all need to become happier? That having seen the toll that too much work and chasing status takes on a man's life, they were prepared to shape the culture along more feminine needs, which means having both family and career on their own terms?

Separating work and life is a damaging disconnect. Work, like leisure, is part of life. Life cannot be forced onto a platform for the occasional performance. It is a constant. When women leave their children at home, they do not park them, they continue as part of their lives. When there are problems, they carry them from meeting to meeting, drawing on their mental and emotional energy despite not appearing on the agenda.

How can they begin to signal a change -- one that aims for a whole-life balance, where work, care and leisure can play appropriate parts?

We can see signs of it already. It started with the discovery by Susan Pinker that women themselves are largely the architects of the glass ceiling, saying no to the top jobs in order to preserve some semblance of family life. Now, increasing number of women are dropping out of large companies altogether in order to set up their own smaller businesses where they make the rules.
Mumpreneurs mirror their dependents' habits, working along school hours and holidays while still using their creative intelligence, making money and having influence. It's not easy, but acceptance for this choice and support to make it happen is beginning to sprout. Men are already beginning to follow this trend, with more fathers asking for flexible working arrangements today than women (many of whom give up their jobs after maternity leave).

Wind forward and we could be talking about job sharing, shorter working weeks, longer weekends, and more distributed careers that may only come to fruition in the 50+ post-children years. With more time and space to be civic would not this lead to much happier families and children, richer communities and a more active democracy?

In this time of globalised financial crisis, many of our shibboleths are being challenged, often because we simply have run out of resources. Consumerism is being defrocked, work is losing its appeal as more years are expected of us for less reward. And even growth for growth's sake is sometimes being challenged with the logic of a steady state economy, wherein quality of life is being offered as a substitute for quantity of goods owned.

On this International Women's Day, is it inconceivable that women's need to be more than one thing in this lifetime, to live a life of relationships both in the family and in work, might become the 21C model for a successful human life? No longer homo economicus, but homo - indeed femina - affinitas?