Can we achieve work/life balance?

Can we achieve work/life balance?

Review: Men at Work: Quarterly Essay by Annabel Crabb

In researching her Men at Work, the latest Quarterly Essay, Annabel Crabb asked Prime Minister Scott Morrison how he copes with such a demanding job and parenting a young family. Morrison’s reply was essentially, ‘What are you talking about?’. Crabb had to rephrase the question a few times before she received responses about facetime and having a meal together once a week. Crabb’s witty but sly and incisive line of questioning was not necessarily meant to sleight Morrison, but rather highlights imbalances. In contrast, she notes, every mother who becomes a politician is asked incessantly about how they juggle roles.

Crabb quotes one US CEO with young children who has been asked everything under the sun about his work, he says, but never about work/life balance. This is because, says Crabb, society retains an assumption that this will be a challenge for women, not men, because raising kids is women’s work. Crabb wants to challenge this assumption. Apart from gestating and giving birth, men can parent too, can’t they? Feminism has made strides in the workplace, and we now assume that generally women perform as well as men at (paid) work, but that equality seems to be lacking in the home. The way we talk about this gives the game away. We don’t use the phrase ‘working dads’ because, well, that would be a tautology. Working is simply what dads do. (Where else would they get their self-worth?)

Crabb is not simply having a go at men, although women, whatever their status at work, still do more of the housework on average than men. (Sixty percent of men don’t change their lifestyles at all after their children are born.) Rather, Crabb is interested in the fact that there remains a social stigma about men choosing to stay at home to parent, and their careers, unlike their wives, suffer accordingly. She digs up numerous examples of how workplaces and workplace laws discriminate against men who want to take time off to raise children.

Men still earn more on average than women, but not always, and sometimes it is prudent for women to work more than their partners. Sometimes the nature of the work means one partner, and it can be the male, can work better around parenting demands. But sometimes it is just about men wanting to spend more time with their kids, which, when that affects work, and more importantly, careers, is still regarded as a little out of the ordinary.

In northern Europe (naturally, says Crabb) it is recognised that both parents being actively involved in parenting makes everyone better off (including society as a whole). I was talking to a German friend about all this, noting that in Australia at social gatherings men still go off into the backyard with beer in hand while women hang out in the kitchen. She said this is not the case in Germany because the government has worked more widely on gender equality issues.

Traditionalists might baulk at all this and say it was easier in the past when we had stricter gender roles. But we also used to think sons should follow their fathers’ professions, a notion now regarded as ridiculously restrictive and uneconomic. Society has moved on to recognise that individuals are different and make different contributions to workplaces and society generally. Of course this has been exploited. The flexibility of the workforce has turned into instability and has been used to drive down wages and increase corporate profits. My own experience of working around parenting has been of choice in reality being instability, and of my wife seeing less of our son than she would like because of financial concerns. But I won’t bore you with all my problems.

It’s a complex issue, and as Crabb says, understudied. Maybe there are biological reasons for men to be less drawn to child-raising than women, maybe we have overcomplicated things to the point of stressful frenzy, and so forth, but Crabb comments less on this than on why we allow for flexibility and individual preferences in one area (workplaces) and less so in another (home and childcare leave). She wants to see women less burdened, and men seeing themselves as more than workers, admirably enough.

Crabb, unsurprisingly, takes examples from the world of politics. She intimates that male politicians often use the wife and kid as props, and that while many lament the long hours away from their families, male politicians who quit politics for a better work/life balance are usually looked upon suspiciously. Freeing men to not derive their identity from simply their job in that particular workplace would probably benefit the country more than most.

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com

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