Just as students complete their formal education and enter the workforce, both men and women exhibit similar levels of zeal. Prospects of a promising career trajectory propel young aspirants to give their best. Yet, few years down the line, when people start families, the career tracks of men and women begin to diverge. While most men continue to persevere on their job trails despite becoming fathers, many women stop working entirely, take a break for a few years or shift to a more flexible job when the stork comes calling. For women who continue to work full-time after motherhood, life involves walking a tightrope between the conflicting demands of a career and childcare. Fathers, who work full-time, do not seem to face the same daily tussles and stresses.
In her book Unfinished Business , polymath Anne Marie Slaughter who has worn many hats including professor, dean, foreign policy analyst, legal scholar and mother, writes that despite getting advanced degrees, entering the workforce and breaking glass ceilings, women’s empowerment will continue to remain incomplete as long as we continue to see domestic duties as primarily falling under a woman’s purview. Forced to make difficult trade-offs between her professional and parenting duties, Slaughter argues persuasively that societies need to make a fundamental shift in how we view caregiving so that men and women can both partake of the joys of parenting while shouldering its stresses more equitably.
As this supplement is intended for youth who are at the cusp of their careers, why is this piece about caregiving duties relevant? In fact, Slaughter coaxes young men and women who are still unencumbered by familial obligations to plan for such contingencies in the long-term when they are chalking out their career paths.
While she acknowledges that we cannot fix these plans in stone as the vagaries of life are unpredictable, knowing that you may have to make space for familial duties, be it a child or an elderly parent, in the future will help you be better prepared to take on your share of caregiving. Even as women are exhorted to “lean in” on the work front, men have to “lean in” on the domestic one.
Over the past three decades, women have made considerable inroads into what were once typically male bastions. As a result, we don’t bat an eye when we encounter female doctors, lawyers, engineers, business leaders and entrepreneurs. While there are still fewer women in top positions, most professions have opened their doors to women. But as Slaughter points out this is only half the battle won. While “we liberated women to be bread-winners, we left caregiving behind, valuing it less and less as a meaningful and important human endeavour.” And, this has indeed left a gaping lacuna in our social system as women are continually compelled to make stark either-or choices. If a couple chooses to start a family, the onus of childcare typically falls on the woman. While fathers are more involved with their kids than earlier generations, their duties tend to be peripheral, like lending a hand every now and then. Even though women have made forays into what were once male professions, men have not embraced parenting duties with the same fervour.
And, as Slaughter points out, women are complicit in letting the domestic status quo remain as it was when women were not working outside the house. Often, women are scared to let go of their household reins as they feel pressured to be able to straddle the world of work and home with equal ease. However, as anyone who has tried to balance the demands of a full-time career with familial duties can attest to the fact that this is a Herculean task. Even with support systems in place, all it takes is for one unscheduled business trip or a child falling sick to tip the balance. As long as society views women as the fulcrum on which this balance rests, women are unlikely to reach their full career potential.
At the same time, caregiving is not an optional duty. We owe it to our kids and their futures to provide them with a supportive, stable and secure environment. So, is there a way out of this predicament? According to Slaughter, the answer is a resounding yes, provided we alter our attitudes and assumptions. Foremost, as a society, we need to appreciate and value caregiving. Even though we may spout cliches about the boundless nature of maternal love, the “easiest way to measure the value we place on care is to see how little we are willing to pay for it.” While Slaughter acknowledges that caring for a child or an elderly parent involves intangible aspects, the fact remains that we devalue care as a profession. We need to recognise that looking after a child or an older person involves patience, pragmatism and perspective-taking, skills that are often in short supply.
In addition to altering our perception of care as something anyone can do with little or no training, fathers need to step in more actively so that the parenting load is more or less equally shared. We also need to understand that a perfect fifty-fifty split of responsibilities is not possible for most couples.
However, men and women, and the firms they work for, need to adopt more flexible attitudes regarding distribution of traditional gender roles. At different points of their career and lives, one partner may decide to slow down while the other ramps up on the work front.
In a related vein, organisations also have to view individuals through a more empathetic lens. If an individual takes times off for familial obligations, he or she should not be deemed less ambitious or focused, as is the current trend, but as someone who exercised a rightful choice.
The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email: email@example.com