Mushrooms, breasts and dentists
Yes there’s a link! Like many professional women in the mid 70s, I got caught up in the Shirley Conran philosophy that smart women could indeed succeed in a career, cope with motherhood and still have time to do throw a dinner party together, while of course, looking gorgeous 24/7. Moving on from Betty Frieden who asked the disillusioned middle class American housewife in the ’60s ” Is this all? “, Conran’s best-selling book Superwoman published in 1975, possibly turned out to be as misleading to women as any anti-feminist tome.
Having it all
Her mantra of ” life is too short to stuff a mushroom ” became the catchphrase for women of the era. We were thrilled to have approval to pursue our careers and were finally given permission to take short cuts on domestic activities. Women no longer had to choose between career and a family – we just had to manage them.
There were two core concepts which were only lightly queried: the first was that real work and the greater sources of satisfaction for women, lay outside the home. This of course created an instant rift with the stay at home mothers and genuine domestic goddesses who felt devalued. The second was that it accepted domestic responsibility and child care as primarily a woman’s role. So this turned out not to be so much “having it all” as “doing it all“, a notion which lingered to our detriment. It perpetuated the myth that the way forward was by increasing our household efficiency not sharing it with our partners.
So women either did all the work themselves, or if they could afford help, they masterminded domestic operations with military precision. Lives became complex balancing acts and a juggling of priorities with those ever decreasing commodities – time and energy, topped off with a good dose of guilt and angst, so eloquently described by Marion Chapsal in her post “What is masculinity?” Any role played by many of our partners was described as “helping”.
I spent the summer with a large number of young women aged 23 – 30. I found some trending topics had changed, but surprisingly much hadn’t. Our conversations were both reassuringly and depressingly familiar. Today, 60% of graduates are women and they make up over 50% of the workforce. I expected natural changes associated with that demographic shift.
Are their choices any clearer?
The answer is not really. Although equal pay is now officially in place, there are still gender disparities in income levels. Women are still absent from senior roles and all research shows that they are still responsible for a higher percentage of household chores, although happily that gap is closing over the generations.
These women lamented the lack of senior women role models within their organisations , just as we did. Surprisingly, they were unsympathetic to women with children being afforded special treatment in the workplace (flexible hours, remote working, priority at holiday periods, reduced demands for overtime, travel and weekend working) and felt this flexibility should be available to all. They even felt that single, childless people were expected to compensate for what they perceived to be lifestyle choices of co-workers with families. They are appalled by the decisions made by senior managers in the hierarchy (male,older, work centric) who they believe sacrifice family life for high salaries. They want to own property, choose furniture and have children. They talk about wedding cakes. They are still under pressure to look good, plagued by conflicting messages, both direct and subliminal of becoming a size zero, but with Barbie breasts and hair. They are very aware that slim, attractive women earn more than those who are not. Many of their parents are divorced and they want financial security and independence.
So do they still want it all?
I decided to ask! Research from a very basic mini survey I sent out suggests:
- 74% of respondents indicated that professional success was “significant but not to the exclusion of other goals“
- 42.3% of respondents indicated that having children and raising a family was “significant but not to the exclusion of other goals”
- 57.5% of respondents indicated that a future partner would be fully involved in childcare
Having it all – but not doing it all
So it seems that these women do want to have both professional satisfaction and success and to combine it with raising a family – just as we did. They want to be financially independent even within a couple and expect their partners to be fully engaged in household management and child care – those are two key variants. It would seem that they do indeed want to have it all, but with a major difference. They don’t want to do it all. This is a huge generational shift and eminently sensible. Research indicates that both Gen Y men and women are either more family or dual centric than their parent’s generation and their partners will be willing to be more highly engaged.
Ironically, part of women negotiating and achieving greater success in the workplace could be closely tied to the balance they strike within their own homes and relationships, so that the father’s professional role will no longer be considered more important than the mother’s within the family unit. Will this mean that if men become more family centric that they too will make demands on the system for change? I think it will.
As Conran also quipped, possibly older, wiser and more exhausted, 29 years later in 2004 “you don’t need a pair of breasts to take a child to the dentist”
Perhaps they will even have time to stuff a mushroom or two. Do you?
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