Sunday, 1 August 2010

is fatherhood a feminist issue?

AT first glance it looks like just another of those cheery "ladies! having kids will ruin your career!" stories. Half the headhunters questioned in a survey said taking a career break to have a family held women back from senior executive jobs (ie roles paying £150k and upwards).
Except if you read the small print (as the NewsAboutWomen site did here) the headhunters said the same was true of men taking time out for any reason. In other words: ladies and gentlemen, having kids will ruin your careers.
So far, so grim. But having taken part the day before in a debate on Radio Four's Today programme about feminism, it did leave me wondering: what do you call the campaign against this rather depressing state of affairs?
Feminism is the natural home for anyone believing that, on the whole, women who get pregnant need not be tarred and feathered and dispatched to a job in the postroom.
But believing in equality between the sexes only goes so far. It is after all equality (of an admittedly rubbish kind) if working fathers get just as lousy a deal as working mothers. The problem here isn't sex, but parenthood.
British law still tends to see things in gender terms: traditionally women disadvantaged by motherhood have sued for sex discrimination. Men who interrupted their careers to look after children have been relatively rare, meaning legislators haven't been forced to think about them much until now.
As they get more common, it is of course possible that recruiters will relax and simply stop binning CVs with breaks in them. But it's also possible that some men will join women on the 'daddy track' to nowheresville at work, and promotions will go to people who either don't have children or are willing not to see them so much.
So is fatherhood a feminist issue? Or, given so many more mothers than fathers still take career breaks, is that missing the point?


  1. My career ended when I became a single dad... I just couldn't be a pub manager any more and raise a child.

    So I've re-trained. I have a certificate in business accounting from the chartered institute of management accountancy. I'm well into the "managerial level" of that accountancy qualification too.

    I have had at least 60 interviews over the last year or so, I interview well (I'm told), I'm articulate, well spoken and intelligent.

    The only job I have been offered is in Canada, which I couldn't take for financial reasons. Other than that, nothing. Not one offer.

    Being a parent seems to be a handicap these days in the job market. Being a *single* parent is fatal... or so it seems.

  2. Well, those of us who fight for equality in the workplace have been pretty clear for a long time that we are not asking for better treatment for women, but better treatment for human beings. There is practically nothing that we ask for that doesn't benefit men, with only a little of the maternity stuff not applying to them but still benefiting their partners and children.

  3. I just visited your blog for the first time and I'm hooked with this post. Feminism and fatherhood absolutely go hand in hand. The more fathers that the feminist/workplace equality/working parents movements can get on board the better, for the benefit of ALL parents.

  4. Earning less than £150k a year signifies ruination of a career?

  5. What Kerry said!... It seems to me that until fathers are entitled to fairer paternity leave, and until more of them take the leave they are entitled too, early parenthood will continue to be in the female domain. Only when there is a combination of mums and dads taking time off from work to look after children will the balance be tipped a little more equally, and it will become normal for members of both sexes to take time off. and then the debate surely has to shift to hot to provide more flexible and accomodating working practices for parents, for example job sharing, more part time roles, felxi time etc to prevent the parenthood road to nowheresville. All easier said than done though...

  6. It is surely no co-incidence that the most "feminist" countries are also the ones with the most extensive parental leave provisions for *both* genders.

  7. "what do you call the campaign against this rather depressing state of affairs?"

    - familism (familyism)??

    nice post.

  8. Evsie, that's lousy - hope something turns up soon.
    Curium, of course not earning 150k doesn't equal ruin (or we'd all be ruined). But not being able to get a job because nobody can see past the fact that you took a few years out with kids can and does ruin careers, as Evsie actually describes. I mentioned that salary figure here only for accuracy because this particular survey was specific to headhunters working in that salary bracket, but there's plenty of other evidence that interrupted CVs can make it difficult to get hired or promoted in a wide range of careers and salary levels.
    And I don't think it's just about the money. It's whether people should be prevented from reaching their full economic and social potential, whatever that might be, through work just because they have spent some time with their kids.

  9. oh and Kerry - welcome, and good luck with the wedding!

  10. 人類的聰明,並非以經驗為依歸,而是以接受經驗的行程為依歸。.......................................................

  11. Late as usual, and hoping only to be more relevant (or at least intelligible) than the previous commenter...but surely the reason that women are treated unequally in the workplace having had children is because there's another option for employers: men (or indeed women) who haven't.The inequality comes about because it's the women who have the babies, and as a result have traditionally done the early years caring; dragging out a phrase from law school, it's indirect sexual discrimination against the gender as a whole.

    So yes, fathers in the same position should absolutely be fought for. Because, as Hannah touches on, once there are equal numbers being treated equally badly, there'll be an equal incentive for us all to change it...

  12. Yes, it is a feminist issue and yes, we need a campaign for better paternity leave. We also need a campaign to persuade recruiters, whether headhunters in the £150K+ bracket or otherwise, that failing to recruit people simply because they have taken time out is not rational behaviour. Furthermore, we need more schemes like the Daphne Jackson Fellowship scheme for scientists, engineers and technologists ( that give people the chance to update their skills, build contacts and get recent references.

  13. It's absolutely an issue for both genders. Just because women DO frequently make the choice to spend time with their children and then take the penalty at work, and men frequently DON'T take the choice to spend time with their young children because they are afraid to take the penalty, often feeling the huge pressure to provide materially for the offspring, doesn't mean that all parents wouldn't prefer to have the choice to take time off and return to work unpenalised. I don't know if you saw the interesting article in the NYT the other day (and don't know if you allow links so I will try to post it here, feel free to delete it, I'm not self promoting) about the cost of parenthood to women. But I think this really applies to anyone who wants to spend time with their kids, it's not really gender specific.

  14. Yes the problem here isn't sex but parenthood, but the problem with parenthood is sex. It wouldn't be quite so devalued if it weren't so readily identified as women's work.

    As a feminist economist who writes about motherhood I used to have this vision that if we improved family-friendly provisions in workplaces more of the at-home parenting would be done by men, and that if men did more of this work there would begin to be a better understanding of the fact that child-rearing is 'work' (quite taxing work, at that) and that child-rearing can be very fulfilling (not a mindless occupation, after all). When this all happened, I decided, the needs of children would be more likely to be considered in the organisation of workplaces, motherhood would become more valued, and parenting (and work outside the home) would be shared more equally between the sexes.

    Then I read Daphne de Marneffe's Maternal Desire and now I am not so sure that this is how the puzzle will be solved. But it is must be a part of the solution, surely.