The Trouble With Kate

// 19 May 2009

As some readers will have noticed, I was interviewed for a BBC Two documentary about working women called “The Trouble With Working Women” which was shown this evening. You can see the whole thing here on the BBC iPlayer. And if you just want to see my bit – it starts at 37 minutes in, so you can scroll it along.

I’ve just finished watching the whole thing and I thought it was quite interesting, they do speak to a range of people on the subject. I had a few notes though.

They talk a lot about the extent to which having children holds women back but they never stop to ask whether that in itself is a result of sexism. I mean if having children made you a bad employee we would assume that the small number of women who do get to the top would all be women without children. Surprise – not true! Margaret Thatcher has two children, Segolene Royal four children, Hillary Clinton one child. And the most successful women in business: Dame Marjorie Scardino has three children, Dorothy Thompson two children, Linda Cook three children. There is no evidence to suggest mothers make less valuable employees. What we do know is that female bosses, regardless of the number of children they have, work an average three hours more per week than their male counterparts.

Later they gravely warn that one in four women with a degree is “childless at forty” – something they should probably mention to the noxious woman complaining she wouldn’t hire a woman of child-bearing age. Note to any female readers currently navigating the credit crunch job market – why not consider a career-enhancing hysterectomy… oh that’s right because it’s totally screwed up and sickening.

Even so the one in four figure is useless information without telling us what percentage of men with degrees are childless at the same age – among my college friends most of the women have children but almost none of the guys. And anyway one in five women overall do not have children in their lifetimes so it seems like the degree might not be the main factor. Plus what percentage of these women wanted children in the first place? Maybe getting a degree opened them up to other things that they enjoy more. Maybe they’re thrilled to be without children and able to focus their free time on travel and artistic pursuits (as a friend said to me the other day “Oh God Kate I wouldn’t have had children if I’d know I was creative!”). Maybe they would prefer to be described with the term “child free”.

They then said that 30% of mothers stay at home full time but that two-thirds of working mothers said they did so out of necessity. For me there’s a gap there where they should be asking what can be done to support mothers who want to spend more time with kids and why the benefit system forces women back to work so quickly after they have children. There is a lot of talk about women making tough choices but the reality for many women is clearly that it’s not a choice at all.

But also I’d like to know what percentage of stay at home mothers do so at least partly because their job prospects are so hampered by sexism – certainly true of all the stay-at-home mums I know.

As so often with these things they seem to get totally sidelined into the motherhood thing and away from the real issue – sexism. Amazing when you consider they actually interview guys who say “women shouldn’t be allowed to work”, “women aren’t put on this earth to work”. And then you’re telling me it’s my choices that are holding my career back? No – it’s these a**holes!

So where is the documentary asking how so many men manage to “juggle” a career with playing golf and downloading internet porn? Whoops, forgot to make that one!

The notion that women having children explains everything from the pay gap to sexual harassment is totally sexist because only women can be “women having children”! I honestly believe if women rather than men grew the vast majority of beards the government would announce they were unhygienic and we wouldn’t be allowed to work in the food industry which would overnight become the best paid industry in the country. And if men had the children they’d be automatically promoted every time they squeezed one out because they were demonstrating an ability to shoulder more responsibility…

We’re not victims of biology – we’re victims of misogyny.

Comments From You

Jane // Posted 19 May 2009 at 9:38 am

The Trouble with Working Women did raise some interesting points but overall it just pissed me off. The title for a start! The trouble isn’t and has never been with us. Nothing was done to properly address why the pay gap is still 17% rising to 20% – it’s just a ‘given’. And that lady who worked full time and had four children – that section was very much skewed towards it being ‘her’ job to get the four children up and off to school – make their lunches etc. But she had a husband! Where was he and what was he doing – apart from shuffling around beardily in the kitchen, giving his ‘permission’ for his wife to work like a bloody Trojan? ‘Do you support your wife’s decision to work?’ asks Emily. ‘Oh yes’ says Beardy. Right – so why not get off your arse and help her get breakfast? Again – why is it a given that working mothers have to ‘pay’ for the sin of working by taking on the entire domestic workload? I’m married and I work and my husband and I take turns to get our children up, make their lunch, do the laundry. Because it’s his job too.

But overall what annoyed me most is that the picture presented of the working mother is so bloody negative. I know loads of working mothers and their boyfriends and husbands do their share – they cook, they clean, they pick up the kids. The way this programme argued it – you either have a career and no home life or a big pile of kids and ironing. And it’s bollocks.

JenniferRuth // Posted 19 May 2009 at 10:01 am

I saw this on the tv guide last night, but didn’t watch it because by the title alone I knew it would enrage me. Seems I was right! Thanks for watching and picking it apart for us Kate.

Your last paragraph made me laugh out loud at work – and then feel kinda sad, because it is so true!

LadyLaxton // Posted 19 May 2009 at 12:19 pm

Great article on the programme Kate – I watched it last night but had to intermittantly turn the channel pver and rave to my boyfriend about it. That woman that wouldnt hire a woman of child bearing age was beyond ridiculous (and I suspect possibly legality?) but worse than that was the centering of the programme around women having to have children and look after them – you are right in that no where in the programme did anyone suggest that this was due to our patriarchal society and merely put it down to biology…..this is total rubbish! If there was equal paternity leave then employers wouldnt discriminate against men as they would be just as likely to take months off than women!

Hannah // Posted 19 May 2009 at 1:48 pm

Good post! I watched a bit of that last night but had to turn over as i just couldn’t believe some of the stuff i was hearing.

Josie // Posted 19 May 2009 at 1:51 pm

I’m surprised that no-one has yet mentioned what an utter tosser the male presenter was – all moronic comments about ‘secretaries’ and incessant interrupting. Almost drove me crazy. I thought that Sophie Raworth did a much better job but was WAAAAY too soft on the boxer who said that women shouldn’t ‘work’ (just WHAT THE HELL does he consider taking care of a home and children to be if it’s not work???) and would always be inferior to men. Puke.

Well done Kate, thought you were great, although not given enough air time!

Madeleine // Posted 19 May 2009 at 4:25 pm

Like Jennifer Ruth, when I saw the title of this programme in the tv guide I thought “no no no”. I wanted a relaxing evening!

Looks like all my worst fears about it were realised.

bea // Posted 19 May 2009 at 5:34 pm

It was a bizarre documentary. Why we still have to pay the BBC licence after I see this and other horrors is beyond me… It annoyed me when they showed eight year old boys and girls interacting and competing against each other to prove the point of whether being competitive was rooted on a biological difference or not, as if eight year olds have not been already socialized by culture!! Stupid.

Noble Savage // Posted 19 May 2009 at 5:54 pm

When I saw you come on the screen, Kate, I was like “I know her! Uh, well, not really but I know her in blogland.” Total Twitter-overload dork moment. Anyway…

I agree with most of your assessment of the show and felt that it totally glossed over the most important way in which working women’s lives would be made less complicated — by the bloody men getting off their arses and doing their fair share around the house and not being afraid to ask for flexi-time and days off when their kids are sick. Until they do, women will always shoulder the burden of responsibility for their children’s care and continue to do it all (not ‘have it all’) while working themselves into early graves.

I did like that the show delved a little deeper into the issues than just unequal pay and maternity leave, like many similar documentaries have done, and was glad to see the presenters (mainly Sophie, that Justin guy was a pompous jerk) looking at things like gender conditioning in children, the effects of childcare on babies, sexist attitudes from the general public (like those horrible builders and that brain-dead boxer) and how inequalities in pay lead to women being forced into the carer role, and vice versa.

I wrote a critique of it on my own blog

Karen // Posted 19 May 2009 at 7:50 pm

Had to watch this programme alternating between taking deep breathes and big sips of wine.

I would have preferred to see Sophie challenging her male co-presenter more strongly (the ‘secretaries’ remark – ugh). Actually the approach she took reminded me rather uncomfortably of the way I will sometimes challenge comments made by men at work but only in a joky/smiling ‘oh come on’ way. Why is this? For me I think it has a lot to do with fear of annoying people (all more senior than me and including my boss) or not wanting to seem difficult.

I am married and my husband looks after our daughter 2 days per week (which makes him a hero and me the luckiest woman alive, according to some) and he is slowly taking on much more around the house mainly due to the fact that I’ve quietly stopped doing various things. I never cracked this when I was on maternity leave or working part time but then I’ve found it’s much easier to leave mounds of washing lying around when you’re not at home to look at it….

dan // Posted 19 May 2009 at 9:47 pm

watching it now and it currently looks like an utter waste of television, continue to watch though in case the female presenter snaps and actually beats up the rather t**tish male presenter.

it raised some interesting points, although none were new, that pay isn’t everything, that a lot of the headline pay gap can be explained by different career choices rather than paying two people different amounts for the same job, but never asked or sought to explain and underlying reasons for these choices. utterly sick of the false science and presenting of facts, loved it when they showed an old man, with presumably a long working career and anounced that he had asked for a pay rise before, unlike the young girl, who looked like she couldn’t have been working more than a few years, who hadn’t. What a shock!

Feminist Avatar // Posted 19 May 2009 at 10:34 pm

25% of women in the population have no children at 35- so women with degrees are actually just following the national trend- it ain’t the qualification.

headey // Posted 19 May 2009 at 11:03 pm

I too was irritated by Monday’s programme. However, having then read the accompanying article in the Radio Times I suspected the second programme might offer some more positive nuggets; so I held my piece.

Of course, the lecturer with 4 kids who got up at 5am to prepare her lectures, got the children’s breakfast then had to tell her s**b of a husband where his socks were was shocking. Then again, maybe it was put in for that very reason.

Also, the presenter’s comment about “secretaries” was (I suspect) a deliberate plant, give that that would be a common assumption by many, both men and women, in our society.

The thing that always incenses me about these discussions is that it’s always framed as being a choice WOMEN have to make. To their credit, they did show a couple where the man was the care giver and the woman worked full time. Also, her comment that child care would have taken all of HIS salary, was the first time I’ve ever heard child care connected to that which the man earns. Sadly, they didn’t follow this up by taking their video-pod into the streets to ask the question; how about the man staying at home and the woman being the breadwinner?

kandela // Posted 20 May 2009 at 12:18 am

“by the bloody men getting off their arses and doing their fair share around the house and not being afraid to ask for flexi-time and days off when their kids are sick. Until they do, women will always shoulder the burden of responsibility for their children’s care and continue to do it all (not ‘have it all’) while working themselves into early graves.”

I agree with you but consider also that there are many men who want to spend time with their families but feel pressured into situations where they cannot. When choosing to devote oneself to children women have more power than men with the same drive. A man asking his boss for flexi-hours to spend more time with his kids gets a response like, “It’s bad enough I have to put up with that stuff with the female staff, I’m not doing it with the men too!”

A man who stays at home with the kids while his wife works is often shamed by his relatives/peers. “You weak man, how come your wife has to provide for you!”

Not to mention that men don’t have anywhere near the confidence to look after children that women do, because they are given no reinforcing of their ability in this area as they grow up.

I really think we need to make it more acceptable for men to spend time with their families. A good start would be paternity leave that is near-equivalent to maternity leave. Another positive initiative would be compulsory basic child care classes at primary school level – this would boost confidence and reflect society’s wish that men participate equally in child care.

If men and women spent equal amounts of time looking after children then this would no longer be an area of inequality. If employers know that men and women are just as likely to ask for time off as parents then it’s not a factor. If men spend just as many years out of full time work as women do then they wouldn’t have more experience when it comes to deciding about promotions.

There’s a sense of entitlement issue to deal with too. A lot of men feel that they deserve more promotions and greater pay because they have given up time with their family to get it. When you couple that with women not seeking promotions as aggressively as men (perhaps in part because they don’t feel they are entitled if they have fewer years on the job as a result of motherhood), then that is another piece of the puzzle.

Clearly motherhood isn’t the only reason for the pay gap, but in a society that doesn’t let fathers be parents in the same way as mothers, it is a contributing factor.

On a slightly different tac: I work in the sciences. Here there is a particular problem related to working parents. By the time you’ve completed a PhD you are in your mid to late 20s. This is the point at which your career starts, you need to start publishing papers to be employable compared to the next group of graduates. This is also the best age to be having children so there is a dilemma there. In this situation choosing when to have children (if you want them) is difficult.

I’m a little surprised that most of your female college friends have children. Not one woman I went to University with (finished a PhD 2 years ago) had children. And the only guys I knew who did were mature age students.

Noble Savage // Posted 20 May 2009 at 8:54 am

I agree with what you’re saying kandela, the only difference is that I don’t think “we” need to do something about it…men do. I’m sick and tired of men expecting feminists to fight their battles and speak up for their rights as well as ours. The first feminists took enormous risks when they began speaking out — personally, socially and politically. They were ostracized, belittled, threatened, disregarded…but they kept fighting. Men need to be willing to do the same and stop expecting feminists to do it for them. That’s a second shift within feminism itself!

headey // Posted 20 May 2009 at 9:47 am

further musings on house-husbands:

Q: how many ambitious women would choose to marry an unambitious man?

I have a suspicion, based on little more than prejudice and gross extrapolation, that (most) women tend to choose men who are as, or more, ambitious as themselves. How many successful women in the public eye are married to equally ambitious men and how many are married to less driven men? If a woman wants to succeed in her career, how many will factor in the possibility of her future husband staying at home? My suspicion is that ambitious women often unconsciously view unambitious men as being rather boring and use their undoubtedly lively personality to attract a more ‘alpha’ male. Result, when children come along there is the tussle about who will look after them.

I was very impressed to learn that the husband of Dame Thora Hird was a house husband decades before the term was invented. And, Julie Walter’s husband looks after their child. But, how many couples do I actually know who have made this choice? One. And even they are merely neighbours and not really close friends or family.

Kate // Posted 20 May 2009 at 10:52 am

I really think we have to move away from the concept of child rearing as a woman’s job. A commissioning editor would probably laugh you out of the room if you pitched the idea of “The Trouble with Working Fathers,” as the idea that men may have to juggle work and parenting, or god forbid make any personal sacrifices” is anathema to most. I watched this show with my partner and I’m relieved to say he was shocked when I told him paternity leave was only 2 weeks long, for any reasonable person it just does not appear remotely long enough. I find the original posters anecdote about her creative friend really depressing. When was the last time you heard a male friend with children claim that they’d lost out on opportunity?

I also think we need to ask more questions and be more critical about work in general. Why is someone who is visibly absent on a Monday morning because the kids are sick vilified in a way that someone who sits hungover at their desk failing to actually produce any work will not be? Let’s drop the assumption that men are highly motivated and wedded to their jobs. Most people clock-in and count the hours until they clock out again. This isn’t The Apprentice. It seems that it’s only women who are meant to prove that they’re investing the dreaded 110% in their careers.

I did find the show a little bit middle class in some of its assumptions. Do the majority of women really have a choice if they work anymore? For most it is a question of necessity as our economy is now fully wedded to the assumption that a household has two incomes and we’re in the situation where most people work to pay the bills, not to cultivate a meaningful career. That said, it does strike me as an absurdity that someone could work only to be paying 80-90% of their wages over to a nanny. Personally I do not think I get enough “fulfilment” out of my job to justify that and would rather take the financial hit for a couple of years. In an ideal world I wouldn’t be forced into that situation though. We still need to be arguing for truly affordable, high quality child care and meaningful, professional part-time jobs.

Kate Smurthwaite // Posted 20 May 2009 at 1:06 pm

I think you’re missing the point a bit headey. I mean if ambitious women marry ambitious men then those men are just as aware as the women of what they are getting in to. it’s up to them as much as the women to find ways to make that situation work.

plus where exactly are the “unambitious” guys who do want to do a full-time unpaid stay-at-home parent job? the inference from your remarks that parenting is some sort of nothing job that requires no effort and no brain-power is wrong and offensive to all those people, women and men, who do it.

Kate Smurthwaite // Posted 20 May 2009 at 1:20 pm

I know a few people on twitter were playing drinking games to the show – so in case you want to join in the rules are (I believe) one drink every time someone says “have it all” and finish the bottle when they say “juggle”.

I hate that word “juggle” because the fun thing about jugglers is watching them to see if and when they’re going to drop something. It implies they’re not really doing any of the things they’re supposed to be doing very well. We never hear about men “juggling” work with an alcohol problem and a West Ham season ticket. Perhaps we should.

kandela // Posted 20 May 2009 at 2:27 pm

Noble Savage, on this point I cannot agree with you. Firstly because you have assumed that men cannot be feminists. There are men who consider themselves feminists and have fought for the principles of feminism.

Secondly, as a feminist, I’m against the patriarchy not against men. The patriarchy is a meme, a set of collective actions that have the affect of giving advantage to (a) particular type(s) of man. In the process just about all men gain some advantage, but many are also disadvantaged in some ways. Women also experince different levels of discrimination depending upon there own personal make up. For true gender equality we need to fight the patriarchy, fighting men just perpetuates a war of the sexes. None of us, women or men, chose the patriarchy, we were all born into it. We’ve all had to undergo some voyage of discovery to recognise its insidious tentacles. Suggesting that those who haven’t yet got it don’t deserve equal treatment, doesn’t seem right to me. Plenty of women don’t seem to get feminism either, we still work for their collective advantage.

If feminism were to succeed in all its aims with regard to women but men were still second class citizens when it came to parenting and child care, would this be a world you would be comfortable living in? You might argue that women are in greater need of the efforts of feminism: true. You might argue that we should help women first and then worry about the men; but why? Parenting is a women’s and men’s issue. As that is the issue we are addressing here we need to consider both parties to get the best outcome.

Most importantly for this issue, the expectations on men are interlinked with those of women. Parenting can not be shared if only one party is allowed to share it. We can’t possibly succeed in freeing women from a disproportionate parenting load without making it acceptable for men to equally share that load. The two things are, in this case, indistinguishable.

Feminists are used to men feeling like they must give something up for women to be treated equally. This isn’t the case here, men gain too. In this instance helping men helps women. Maybe you disagree with that sentiment, perhaps there is another way to advance the cause of women in this area without helping men. But I ask you this, why would you choose a route that only helps women when you could choose one that helps both sexes?

I don’t buy that men must choose suffering to be entitled to equal treatment. Really, we are talking about fixing things for the next generation, when we talk about fixing things. What have your unborn sons done, that they should have to embrace ostricisation in order to have equal parenting rights?

Qubit // Posted 20 May 2009 at 2:27 pm

kandela, I am intrigued about the idea of men not being as confident in bringing up children as women. I have never received any education on this front and the idea of even holding a child scares me. I am not sure if this is just me but I would speculate that in general women find the idea of children just as terrifying as men but feel they have to get on with it. Then again I do agree with education on this front for both sexes would be useful.

I seem to be lucky to do a PhD in sciences where I have female colleagues at all levels and people I work with closely to be balancing caring for a child with their work (both male and female). It has reassured me that while difficult it is possible.

Sarah // Posted 20 May 2009 at 3:05 pm

headey – I suppose ideally it wouldn’t be so either-or. You don’t necessarily need to have one alpha and one beta in each relationship, one driven careerist and one unambitious stay-at-home parent. Ideally both would do some paid work (good for self-esteem and personal financial security and keeping your job skills up to date in case you need them in the future) and both would take some responsibility for domestic duties and have the opportunity to be involved in their children’s day-to-day lives. Of course it’s up to each couple to work out between themselves how they’re going to share these things out, and it will depend a lot on individual circumstances. The traditional model (even with genders reversed) might work for some couples, but I don’t think it would be the ideal for most – better to work towards a situation where neither women nor men have to choose between having children and having a career, and it’s possible to have a reasonable work-life balance. I’m thinking of initiatives like flexible hours, working from home, shared parental leave etc. After all, most people have children, and most people have to work for a living – it’s absurd that these things should be seen as incompatible.

Sarah // Posted 20 May 2009 at 3:24 pm

“That said, it does strike me as an absurdity that someone could work only to be paying 80-90% of their wages over to a nanny. Personally I do not think I get enough “fulfilment” out of my job to justify that and would rather take the financial hit for a couple of years.”

This is a common argument used to push women into giving up their jobs, and one that many women use to talk themselves out of believing their career is important (strangely, though the same argument could be equally applied to many men’s situations, it rarely is). The problem I have with this is that in the longer term you don’t just lose your current salary multiplied by the number of years you’re ‘at home’. You lose out on any pay rise you might have got during that time – you’ll probably go back to work at the same or a lower salary. You also miss out on any promotion you might have got, any additional responsibilities you might have taken on that would have helped enhance your career, any knowledge and experience you would have acquired, any useful contacts you might have made, and you may lose touch with your current network. Depending on your field, you may find you miss out on changes and new developments in the industry (I’m thinking of technology and finance, where things can change dramatically in a few years – I’m sure it’s true in other areas too, these are just the ones where I have experience) , you may find your skills are out of date and you need to retrain (which means more unpaid time of work, more costs for the training courses unless you self-teach) or take a more junior position. Even if none of this happens, you’ve lost two or three or more years of experience, which will set you back compared to colleagues who didn’t have that break.

So when the children start school, and the nanny is gone, the woman who kept working would expect to be in a stronger position in terms of her career and finances, compared to the one who dropped out of paid work (all other things being equal). Even if at the time the nanny was hired, her costs were 100% of the woman’s salary.

You might decide that none of that matters, you’d rather spend the time full-time parenting anyway. And that’s fine – there’s more to life than climbing the corporate ladder. And don’t mean to sound too negative – I’m sure you could equally well point out many personal benefits to taking a career break (for parenting or otherwise). But it is a mistake to just do the simple comparison of your current salary with the nanny’s fees, there’s a lot more to it than that.

headey // Posted 20 May 2009 at 3:30 pm


” I mean if ambitious women marry ambitious men then those men are just as aware as the women of what they are getting in to. it’s up to them as much as the women to find ways to make that situation work.”

Are the men as aware as the women? True, they ought to be, but I genuinely doubt they really are. However, I do agree that it is up to them to make the situation work.

“… the inference from your remarks that parenting is some sort of nothing job that requires no effort and no brain-power is wrong and offensive to all those people, women and men, who do it.”

Offense not intended. Because someone is not prepared to climb the corporate ladder I don’t see why you think they would automatically regard parenting as a ‘no brain-power’ job. The two are not synonymous, at least not to me. Perhaps you reveal a little of your own prejudice by implying that someone who was not ambitious didn’t have the brain power to be a corporate climber.

headey // Posted 20 May 2009 at 3:50 pm


“I don’t think “we” need to do something about it…men do.”

Agreed. However, I do think that, if you have an insight into an issue someone else cannot possibly have, then only you can point it out to them. After that then, you’re right, it’s up to the other.

I vividly recall a story my mother told of a dinner party when my father helped carry the dishes to the kitchen (where the women were washing up!) while the other men retreated into a corner to chat.

“Aren’t you lucky to have a husband who helps you.” commented one of the other women.

“Luck had nothing to do with it.” was my mother’s reply, “I wouldn’t have put up with anything less.”

Both my brothers are very hands-on Dads and husbands and I can’t help but think my mother’s attitudes had no little part in shaping ours.

John // Posted 20 May 2009 at 5:37 pm

@ Noble Savage

With respect , I don’t think that this is a men’s issue which ONLY men should deal with . It’s an issue which men and women must deal with – just as women’s rights are the resposibility of men too . Indeed some so-called women’s issues or men’s issues may be different sides of the same coin . The reality is that equality will be impossible unless both women and men work for it .

I do get your point – I can see how it may feel that those fighting for women’s rights are being asked to shoulder another burden while men sit around complaining – it is unfortunate that us men(and some women!) don’t always join the dots and see the advantages that equality would bring to all .

Kez // Posted 20 May 2009 at 6:35 pm

Kate – I’ve never thought of it that way before, but you’re absolutely right about the word “juggle”. It does imply that it takes great skill to keep all the balls in the air and that you might drop them all at any moment.

Although come to think of it, that is pretty much what my life feels like, so maybe it is a good description after all. Hmmm.

Noble Savage // Posted 20 May 2009 at 8:28 pm

Of course men can be feminists and of course we should advocate for their rights too. But we’ve been doing it for decades and look where it’s gotten any of us. I’m frustrated that men are willing to “support” feminism but many are not willing to do the nitty gritty, down and dirty work that requires personal and social risks.

Men can be feminists but I believe that they also need their own movement, or sub-movement within feminism, in order to create one big collective voice. After all, it’s men in power and only men that will listen to their demands…if they only made them. Just agreeing with female feminists isn’t enough, in my opinion.

kandela // Posted 20 May 2009 at 9:02 pm

Qubit, of course you are right, neither women nor men receive formal training for parenting. Being a parent for the first time is scary for anyone; how do I hold the baby, how much does it need to eb fed, when should it go on to solids, what do I do if it won’t stop crying?

The differences are women have many more role models, they see mothers holding the baby from a young age and the learn that they too, one day (if they choose), can do that too. It’s not just parents who are role models. We hardly see any men in professional child caring roles, or any role associated with young children. Something like only 16% of primary school teachers in the UK are male. This reinforces the idea that men naturally aren’t good with children.

There is also the idea of preparation through play. Young girls more commonly play with dolls, pretending that they are children, play house etc. Just about every computer game that has any element of parenting to it, is marketed exclusively at girls. (The exception may be tamagochi, but although the skills are the same that doesn’t help because a tamagochi is a pet, so boys don’t associate those skills with parenting.) All of these activities mentally prepare a child to be a hands on parent.

So, role models and confidence boosting through play. These are two of the same things I would consider are lacking in encouraging girls into technology based careers.

Further we are taught that mothers have some innate ability toward mothering. This makes men think that they require extra training to be as good, the same training that neither sex gets. Once again this erroneous idea (has never been proven in any way*) is analogous to the false claims about how men’s and women’s brains work that have been used to dissuade girls from maths and the physical sciences.

Then there are the magazines. No magazine (or at least very very few) marketed at men deals with parenting issues. Whilst amongst those marketed at women it is common to have articles discussing these issues. So there is an inequality in informal training.

Women also get a head start in a lot of cases – having been with the child since birth. Whereas the father may get his first chance to do a significant amount of the parenting only when his wife re-enters the workforce. The result is that many fathers feel like they just don’t know the things mothers do and therefore aren’t as good at it. They forget that their wife had to learn these things too.

So lack of formal training isn’t what is causing the gender gap in this instance but installing such a system would go part of the way to helping to solve it. The practical experience would help build confidence. But also treating boys and girls as equals in the classroom would go some way to dispelling the myth that girls just have an innate ability for it.

I hope that helps flesh out the ideas involved.

*Though I am willing to accept that 9 months of labour helps you bond with a child before it is born. Then again a father allowed to share in that as much as possible by his wife can recover much of that ground.

Qubit // Posted 20 May 2009 at 10:19 pm

John, I am not sure how much women can do about the issue of men struggling to get flexible time. Women are rarely in the position of power to provide this directly, certainly those who can will be able to do something but a lot can’t. Similarly woman (be it a guy’s wife or colleague) can’t ask on behalf of the man.

Yes women and men can campaign to the government but again men are more likely to be taken seriously here. There has been a strong backlash by men in comments in papers like the Daily Mail suggesting offering men paternity leave removes their rights. As depressing as it sounds I think unless it is proposed and supported by men any policy this way will be taken as evidence as women are taking over and bitterly opposed.

Chloe // Posted 20 May 2009 at 11:27 pm

This had me yelling at the t.v! The overlooked the most glaring and fundamental question which is “Why can’t a woman succeed like a man?” but ‘Why should a woman have to succeed ‘like a man’ to be success?’ . Nowhere did they mention the engendering of success with maleness. arg arg arg arg. And those builders? oh dear god.

Aimee // Posted 21 May 2009 at 8:01 am

“The differences are women have many more role models, they see mothers holding the baby from a young age and the learn that they too, one day (if they choose), can do that too”

Um, boys can see that too! I dislike the assertion that the only role model a boy can have is a male one.

I understand what you are saying, but you’ve just listed, in my opinion, many ways that women are disadvantaged in order to justify the position of some men.

Doesn’t quite work, i’m afraid.

headey // Posted 21 May 2009 at 10:48 am

kandela, your comments about learned skills brings to mind something I realised when I was working in Indonesia (forgive the name-dropping, but the location is significant).

I had a friend who had Indonesian parents, was born and raised in Indonesia, but had spent significant chunks of her life abroad. When she walked into shops people would hail her with “Hello mister.” convinced she was NOT Indonesian. She couldn’t understand why they thought that. Then, one day, I chanced to spot her walking down the road and the penny dropped; she didn’t walk like an Indonesian.

Had she ever been taught how to walk? I very much doubt it. Had anyone ever said to her; “Don’t walk like that, lean forward, pick up your feet and walk as though you know where you’re going and are eger to get there.” Well, possibly (many of us in the UK have been told to pick up our feet), but I doubt my friend had ever been given any walking tips or tuition.

The point is that she picked up a Western style of walking more or less by osmosis and almost certainly, unconsciously, with the result that locals take her for a foreigner. We all absorb things quite unconsciously, especially when young and impressionable. It seems very much more likely that women’s apparent skills with children are learned rather than innate. After all, we know that female chimpanzees that have not been mothered tend to lose their first born due to lack of skills. Given that the higher animals are up the evolutionary tree the less their behaviour is instinctive but much more learned. Assuming humans ARE at the top of that tree (perhaps debatable) it seems reasonable to assume that learned behaviours far outweigh those that are instinctive.

Kandela // Posted 21 May 2009 at 1:53 pm

Noble Savage,

I’m intrigued by the idea of a men’s sub movement within feminism. How do you envision such a movement would look? Would it need it’s own name like meninism? How would you separate out the meninists from the feminists? Or would it just be men acting through the feminism movement on the basis of gender equality?

There are many men who are trying to speak out. A lot of them are part of feminist movements already. Perhaps in part because they, rightly I think, believe that a movement already dedicated to gender equality would be the most sympathetic to their cause.

Feminists already support a large range of groups in their fight for equality. Groups that include male homosexuals for example. The reason for which, according to one blog response I read recently was succinctly put as “Because hompphobia and misogyny are on a continuum, largely. Much dislike of (male) homosexuals is rooted in disdain for women.” Well, men who take on roles traditionally reserved for women, in this case primary parenting and child care in general, are in the same position. Lack of sympathy for their position, is rooted in classifying the roles women have historically played in society, as lesser ones.

There are already heterosexual men within the feminist movement, why wouldn’t we offer them the same support in fighting their issues as we do other sub groups within feminism?

Or to take your suggestion, how do we arrange the men already within the movement into an effective sub group to espouse their issues?

kandela // Posted 21 May 2009 at 2:14 pm


I dislike that assertion too. As a scientist I have male and female role models. It didn’t matter to me their gender, just their achievements and the way they held themselves. I think the problem is that when you see almost all men acting one way and almost all women acting another way it is hard for a child not to form an impression of gender roles.

I agree with your second point too. The things I mentioned are ways in which women are disadvantaged. An excess of dolls and stories about motherhood in ‘girlie magazines’ leads girls in a particular direction. The key word here though is excess. Dolls and stories of parenting aren’t in and of themselves bad. It is just that the balance is degradingly skewed. But it is skewed for both boys and girls – just in opposite directions. Boys need more of these things, girls need less of them.

kandela // Posted 21 May 2009 at 2:25 pm

Headley, you’ve reminded me of a walking story too.

Men and women walk differently. The reasons are bio-mechanical. Women, in general, have a lower centre of gravity and wider hips, so it is more energy efficient to pivot around ones centre a bit (basically swing the hips). The degree of swing you display, all other things being equal, is governed by the width of your hips and your weight distribution. Consequently some women with narrow hips have very straight up and down walks.

Yet one of the largest degrees of hip swing I’ve ever seen was on a young woman who had very narrow hips and a clearly much higher weight distribution. From the context it was clear that this girl wasn’t consciously trying to swing her hips, but for some reason she was. I can only conclude that this was also a learned behaviour, picked up subconsciously. The proliferation of the stereotyped female beauty in our society is so prolific that it is actually affecting walking styles!

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds