Ashton Kutcher wants dads to be able to change their baby’s nappies on the fly. His rallying cry is garnering support on social media, as fathers express frustration that the ladies’ toilet is too often the only option when needing to change their baby’s nappy outside the home.
Ashton’s cause is a great example of what modern day feminism is all about. It’s a joint struggle. A struggle that serves a common goal for both men and women. Yes, you heard me right. It’s not about women taking over or hating men, and it’s even less about the end of masculinity as we know it. Modern feminism is a fight against the patriarchal stereotypes restricting all our lives, no matter what sex, and most importantly it’s about fixing alternate sides of the same problem.
The need for more men volunteering at the school canteen is not mutually exclusive to the call for more women on executive boards. For every female called ‘bossy’ in the workplace, there is a male chastised by his mates for being a ‘girl’ when he sheds a tear. So eloquently put by Caitlin Moran in Esquire the other week…
“We're bulimic, objectified and under-promoted. You, meanwhile, are unable to talk about your feelings lest you get punched in the nuts by "a lad" telling you not to be "a bender"”.
The home is still gendered territory and unless we start breaking down biases ingrained in our definitions of what ‘wife’ or ‘dad’ does, the gender equality prize will never be won outside the home and where our main focus lies, in the workplace.
As a child of divorced parents I know all too well the looks of disapproval tennis mums give when Dad, not Mum, is the parent you live with. Yes, ok he was quite annoying on Tuesday nights when playing guitar with his mates, yet he was religious in his determination to have a home cooked meal on the table every night and was always on hand to drive me, not to mention the rest of the team, home from after school sports.
These days now in my own home, I’ve started affectionately calling my partner wife. He’s not only better at cooking but he’s happiest when able to play the role of carer in the home. Whether this means freezing Bolognese for next week’s dinner or insisting I leave the house in the morning with a proper breakfast in my belly, my ability to undertake paid work is heavily subsidised by my partner’s home-based, unpaid, caring role.
The rise of the female bread winner or women who are paid more than their partner is now well documented. On the other hand, the need for a wife no matter what sex to support our paid labour force, is a topic far less explored. In most western capitalist economies, a full time job either assumes help on the home front or the cramming of life tasks into evenings, weekends or perhaps a mad dash at lunchtime. Indeed, the bigger the job, the bigger the pull from home. How many politicians or CEO job descriptions assume regular business travel? A particular issue if we consider jobs where more female roles models are needed.
What is more of a problem is that when it comes to the need to reduce, restructure or take time out of paid work to cover traditional home-based care duties, it often falls to women. The UK government’s Women and Equalities Select Committee report released this week was another gloomy picture of the gender pay divide. What was more interesting however, was that part-time work and women’s disproportionate responsibility for childcare and other forms of unpaid caring, were cited as major factors causing this gap. According to the report, in the UK 41% of female employees work part-time, compared to only 12% of male employees. In Australia, where I grew up, 43% of mothers with primary school children work part-time but only 5% of fathers do. At first glance, people may argue that this is yet another example of patriarchal power. Though, if we look again through the lens of modern feminism, it’s a great male injustice, and basically excludes Dads and male home carers from flexible or part time hours.
For Annabel Crabb, author of The Wife Drought, this is a good example of how we have been looking at things the wrong way up. For all the progressive social change women have realised over the last five decades, any corresponding change for men has been extremely narrow. Stuck in the middle of conflicting expectations, men still face the masculine call to be the protective provider, while simultaneously encouraged (and if my friends are anything to go by, actively preferring) to be ever more present in home life. Indeed, one of the most limiting sexist stereotypes defining how we work today is the image of male corporate success and its demand for long office hours and the confinement of family time to the weekend only.
This common goal of modern feminism is symbolised perfectly by The Everyday Sexism Project and its numerous examples of sexist stereotypes encroaching on the lives of guys just as much as gals. The project hears from fathers being congratulated for ‘babysitting’ their own children while simultaneously hearing from women criticised for ‘taking the night off’. For every man refused parental leave and hassled for not being committed to the job, there is a women refused promotion because she is deemed a maternity risk. As advocated by Laura Bates, who sits behind the project, so many of these problems represent two sides of the same coin.
To make matters worse, when a guy does attempt to embrace alternate home caring roles, the term ‘house husband’ or ‘Mr mum’ acts to undercut his skill and make out he is only ever second best. Women are all too often the first to tease a man about not being good enough in the home or doing housework ‘the wrong way’. I for one, need to simply celebrate the dishes being washed rather than taking over so the dishes are stacked the way I like them!
So it’s time to stand together in our joint struggle for modern feminist change. A rallying cry epitomized by Sheryl Sandberg’s call for women to "Lean In", while at the same time asking for men to do more of the washing up.
Firstly, as evidenced by Norway, policy makes a difference. Their celebrated shared parental leave allowing both parents access to 10 weeks paid bonding time with their new born is seen as a major factor driving up their female workforce participation rate, now one of highest in the world. It also means workplace flexibility in general is more the norm there, and less of the ‘career death’ (as described by the UK’s CIPD - Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development), where most companies still want senior level employees to work full-time, resulting in fewer part-time options mostly at a comparatively junior level.
Secondly, it’s not just about people with kids. More flexible, fluid or shared work practices benefit anyone that wants to give time to life outside of work. It’s a recognition that our workforce is propped up by unpaid home care, and benefits society, such as looking after an elderly relative or enriching life through volunteer work.
And finally, modern feminism is about supporting our new role models. Whether it’s Dad working from home to care for a sick child or the female politician eating a packed lunch made by her stay-home partner, this is what a gender equal future looks like.