A row of sorts has broken out in The Irish Times between two of its contributors over the endlessly controversial question, ‘what do women want?’ It’s an immensely clichéd question, of course, but in respect of the proper balance between work and home, there is no one right answer, anymore than there is for men.
What prompted the exchange between columnist Breda O’Brien (one of our patrons) and Irish Times journalist Judith Crosbie was a widely-read piece by former Hilary Clinton advisor Anne Marie Slaughter, in which she said that the goal of “having it all” was all but unachievable.
Slaughter has scaled back on her enormous work commitments in order to spend more time with her family.
But in her column in last Saturday’s Irish Times, Breda O'Brien expresses surprise that Slaughter “never even mentions the possibility of any woman choosing to work full time in the home”. She suggests that, in failing to acknowledge this option, she is “unrepresentative”.
This annoyed Judith Crosbie. Writing in her response piece she who seemed to think that O'Brien was suggesting that “women should just throw in the towel and get back into the home?”
O’Brien, of course, never made any such suggestion.
In her article, O’Brien simply pointed out that many women do actually want to work in the home full-time citing evidence from Dr Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics showing that “there is a hard core of women, between 10 per cent and 30 per cent in every country researched, who aspire to work full time as mothers and homemakers”.
This didn’t even come close to saying “women should just throw in the towel and get back into the home.”
Crosbie added: “Women who choose to work full-time in the home should be supported in their choice. But most women can’t do this or don’t want to.”
O’Brien would whole-heartedly agree that women who want to work full-time in the home should be supported. She would also agree that “most women can’t do this or don’t want to.”
However, the fact is that women who choose to work full-time in the home are not supported in their choice, either by the Government, whose tax individualisation policy directly discriminates against single income families, or by elite culture, represented by people like Anne Marie Slaughter, who won't even acknowledge that working full-time in the home is an option for women.
Judith herself admits that many women can't choose to work in the home and that is exactly the point. Not enough is being done about this.
We also know that women are much more likely to work part-time than men, on the basis that they want to spend more time with their children.
The Quarterly National Household Survey shows that a clear majority of women (73pc) working part-time don't want more hours. They have the work/life balance they want.
We don’t know how many women who work full-time would prefer to work part-time. A lot, it is probably safe to bet.
Crosbie seems to believe that Government policy can indeed enable women to “have it all”. She says the Government should “incentivise” men into “playing an active role in child-rearing”.
How could the Government do this? Crosbie suggests looking at the Swedish example where men “are given two months leave which cannot be used by the mother”.
But Sweden isn’t a very good model to look at, contrary to popular belief. Despite the fact that its social policies are driven by the imperative of getting women into paid work, it has about the same gender pay gap as we do, for largely the same reason; more women than men work part-time.
Crosbie then goes on to warn that, if we don't address this issue, we will experience a fall off in fertility: “Fertility rates across developed countries are low; in the EU no country currently hits the replacement level of 2.1 children born per female. Ireland at 2.04 children per female (2011 figures) has the highest fertility rate across the EU but it may only be a matter of time before Irish women in numbers follow their sisters in other countries in choosing a child-free life and career over a life plagued with struggle and guilt.”
The problem with this is that Sweden, whose social policy in this regard she urges us to follow, has an even lower fertility rate than us.
Government should allow women and men to decide for themselves how to organise their own worklife balance, and steer clear of ideological quotas and social engineering which presume that all women want to be in paid work.