In autumn 2013 I attended a business women’s lunch in Norwich where Dr Haya Al-Dajani presented some of her research into women’s economic position in New Anglia. I was really struck by her findings, particularly when I considered them in conjunction with my own observations. It’s not just the pay gap (in Norfolk, for example, there is a 15% pay gap between men and women, in Suffolk it’s 19% – but I’m not sure British people ever talk about how much they are really being paid, let alone work out disparity), or the “glass ceiling” and the “sticky floor”, it’s also the way so many women appear to vanish from positions of organisational power as they have children or, to quote Erika Clegg from the New Anglia LEP in the EDP in December 2013 “There is a profligate waste of skills dropping out of the workforce along the career pipeline”. The old-school call to get more efficient in order for women to have it all seems a bit surreal – even if women batch cook, use a personal shopper and delegate children, so many are still forcing themselves into roles that are defined by a patriarchal society where tasks and responsibilities are divided along Neanderthal lines – which also take so many women right back to caring for elderly parents, often just as children leave home.
Some argue that creating more full time jobs and getting women back from the school run to the office would be good because it would represent an increase in tax income – so what’s good for the economy now would be good for everyone in the long run. And yet, and yet, children with parental involvement with their education have better social skills, learn well, progress strongly and, ultimately are able to add value to our society. Referring back to my personal observations, it is striking at school events how many of the parents there (mothers and fathers) are self-employed and able to design their working day to fit in sports day, or hot chocolate break etc. Does this offer an alternative? I can hear you, all those people sucking their teeth and pointing out that they, and many like them, successfully combine childcare and career; I can also hear people muttering the stories of terrible stay-at-home parents who only eat carry-out food, never turn the TV off and haven’t shown their children how to “work” a book.
Despite this, I’m not sure at the moment that we are seeking 21st century solutions to balancing work and life – and family – and hobbies – and volunteering – and the environment. It seems to me we are still trying to use an industrialist expansion model that isn’t fit for purpose anymore. Examples of people being valued because they work 60, 70 and more hours per week; success measured on financial products that can’t be understood by most people because the product has so lost contact with the fundamentals that should be anchoring them; a Victorian (not in a good way) approach to using raw materials and resources.
No answers from me – yet – but a few analogies and metaphors to help encapsulate the issues: I’m thinking of this an an eLLephant. Why? Because the only way to eat an elephant is one mouthful at a time. Because faced with the task of describing an elephant through touch there is a story about some blind gentlemen who found it to be hard and long, or like a rope, or like a basket (depending on whether they were touching the tusk, tail or ear). Because the elephant in the room is that women give birth to children which makes them different to men. And, (often people join in at this point) because elephant society is matriarchal.
Recently a wise librarian suggested a further analogy to help define, describe and develop my notion – the story of the star thrower, which I hadn’t heard before. A young man is noticed at the high tide mark on the beach. He picks up star fish and places them back in the water so they are safe. “Why bother?” queries a passer-by, “the beach is enormous and you will never get round them all”. “I know”, he replies, picking and throwing one more back into the waves, “but it matters to that one.”