From the sexual harassment and assault denounced by the #MeToo movement, to high-profile equal pay scandals in Hollywood, a new generation of women is taking up the fight for gender equality.
In Barcelona, International Women’s Day on March 8 was marked by a strike, whose organisers urged women to forget domestic tasks for the day and instead to attend demonstrations demanding change. Ignoring the daily drudgery might seem like an easy sell, but the practical difficulty of doing so served to illustrate the very problem the strike hoped to challenge.
A friend of mine, let’s call her Maria, was so busy with her full-time studies and two children that she didn’t hear about the strike until the day before, when she received a message from her sons’ school. With most teachers planning to strike, parents were strongly advised to keep their children at home. Wondering how she was going to prepare for her final exam the following day with her two young boys tearing up the house, Maria rang her husband to make a plan. What do you think he said?
Women’s presence in the workplace may have increased exponentially compared to a generation ago, but this change has not been matched by men picking up the slack at home – according to OECD statistics, men in Spain do around 37% of household chores compared to women’s 63% – despite the fact that many mothers return to full-full time work just four months after giving birth.
It’s not difficult to understand. As women have moved out of the home and into the workplace the benefits have been many and obvious – financial independence, increased social status and the satisfaction of being able to make an impact in the world. But there are few incentives for men to take on a greater share of the essential unpaid domestic labour that keeps the wheels of life in motion – especially if doing so would involve sacrifices to their careers.
This is not about the fun part of child-rearing – all parents want to do more of that. It’s about the boring, inconvenient and often unpleasant stuff that simply needs to be done – arranging after-school activities, going to the supermarket, booking doctor’s appointments, doing the never-ending laundry, and most crucially, being available at the last minute when plans change. Even in the most modern of relationships, it’s still women who disproportionately bear this load. Extracting themselves from it too often means finding another woman, paid or unpaid, to do it.
But outsourcing alone doesn’t solve the problem. If one parent needs to take days off work at the last minute when a child is sick, while the other is available for late meetings and frequent travel, it’s not a surprise when one career stagnates while the other flourishes. This leads to differences in pay that only increase the incentives to prioritise one career over another, creating a vicious circle which entrenches traditional gender roles as the years pass. The current generation of fathers no doubt consider themselves to be modern men, more than happy to pitch in, but in practice most draw the line when it comes to sacrificing career goals in order to take on domestic work and caring responsibilities.
As it turned out, Maria’s husband had heard about the strike – some of the women in his office would be taking the day off to look after their children, who like Maria’s, would be off school. When Maria explained her dilemma, he did not hesitate to step up: “No problem,” he said. “I will call my mother.”
And so, on International Women’s Day, Maria’s mother-in-law came to help her while her husband went to work as usual. Neither Maria’s well-meaning husband, nor apparently any of his male colleagues, saw the other, glaringly obvious, solution – that they should do it.
All over Barcelona, mothers cobbled together similar arrangements so they could either work, or possibly participate in the strike. But the purpose of a women’s strike is defeated when the only way women can participate is if another woman takes over the caring responsibilities that can’t be ignored.
As depressing as it is to still be fighting the battles of our grandmothers in 2018, we have yet to solve this stubborn barrier to true gender equality. The solution is simple but frustratingly difficult to achieve: men have to do more boring, unpaid, thankless domestic work, even when – and this is crucial – it means taking a hit to their careers.
The new generation of feminists, enraged by #MeToo and inspired by Oscar-night speeches, have yet encounter this intractable problem in their lives. Perhaps, like the generation of post-feminists before them, they will assume that it won’t happen to them. But unless young men start to see unglamorous domestic work as their responsibility too, I fear that today’s young feminists, when they become mothers, will find themselves in the same boat as the generations who have gone before.