IT would not be surprising if the term ‘working mother’ — a professional woman with children — is viewed negatively in the future. Working women are short-changed and in the pecking order of discrimination, they are hit the hardest. On the other hand, the second set of reactions implying the “wasted lives” of stay-at-home mothers is equally irksome. It’s hardly surprising that for women, the myth of ‘having it all’, is inescapable. The ideal woman is one who rises to a Fortune 500 CEO whilst remaining a committed mother.
The half-truths we are fed exacerbate this fairytale. If you dream big, if you are committed, if you marry the right partner, if you perfectly sequence your life by pursuing the endless hypotheticals, everything is possible. The result: women blame themselves for not advancing as fast as men, raising enviable families, and striking the perfect work-life balance. In fact, the issue flows much deeper. Women are brought up to believe that the onus of sacrifice lies on them, so when the time arrives, the expectation isn’t questioned.
Navigating the polar worlds of home and office simultaneously isn’t uncomplicated. Along with paid jobs the ‘second shift’ — child-raising and homemaking — demands equal tenacity. For working women, both are imperatives. According to a study analysing 11 indicators of stress, working mothers are 18 per cent more stressed than others. The stress level spikes to 40pc for women with two children.
Women blame themselves for not advancing as fast as men.
In Pakistan, this burden exacerbates for two reasons: ‘mommy tax’, which surfaces once women embark on parenthood, is coupled with patriarchal norms. The epidemic of the ‘motherhood penalty’ kicks in as early as women disclosing their pregnancy. Recruitment hinges on first impressions, hence mentioning that you are a mother, or pregnant, during the hiring process, can lead to assumptions about juggling too many balls. I remember withholding information about my pregnancy when I interviewed for my current job, despite it being a Western institution. The fear of being viewed as a liability is real.
Maternity policies are flaky, involving insufficient leave, pay cuts and a perception fallout impossible to measure. Requests for flexible hours, working from home or the inability to relentlessly travel impact work prospects and often result in a lowered probability of being tasked with big assignments. Intervals to return to a career are confronted by the stigma of rationalising gaps on the CV. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, earnings plummet by 30pc for women if they stay out of the workforce for two to three years.
When it comes to socialisation, male upbringing neglects values of shared parenting and housework. In cases where fathers support childcare or divide chores, they are disproportionately lauded — women must feel lucky. In Pakistan, unlike the West, men face no negative sanctions for being part-time parents. Amidst these competing priorities, ‘leaning in’ and rising to C-suite boardroom positions becomes a far-fetched proposition for women.
Change is likely to be sustained if it is twofold: personal allied with institutional. First, the benchmark for the photo-shopped parent is so high we inevitably fail in scaling it. Settling for ‘good enough’, reducing guilt about allocating ‘me time’, spending fewer hours with children without being tempered by distraction, spousal division of labour and accepting crucial trade-offs must be normalised.
Secondly, institutional reforms, including nonlinear thinking that reshapes workplaces and eases stiff schedules and hierarchies, is lacking. More physical time in office doesn’t correspond with higher efficiency, staying digitally connected often works. Introducing childcare facilities and favourable maternity and paternity policies ease stress. The culture of segregating emotions from workplace interactions is unnatural; the dichotomy between our personal feelings and professional lives warrants extinction. People must be allowed to express ‘bad days’ at work, without the fear of appearing ‘unprofessional’.
Women today are desperate to keep the feminist flag high, but glib reassurances of ‘having it all’, gloss over realistic possibilities. According to Bronnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, people’s most frequent regret was, I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me’. For a long time, I pursued a success model which believed in catapulting the professional ladder the quickest. A decade later, two children in tow, I am questioning this ideal and the cost it carries. My transition from corporate life to academia demonstrated that our careers aren’t a linear, upward slope but an uneven staircase, with dips and peaks and intervals. As tempting as the sprint to success is, a happiness project is more likely to endure if we run a collaborative marathon.
The writer is a freelance contributor.
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2019