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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 17-Mar-2011

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 896

Your chicks or your career? Do you really want what he’s having?


‘Childcare!” yells the heckler from the rear stalls. “What about childcare?” “Childcare?” I hear myself say into the mike. “Maybe there’s a point where you just have to suck it up.” Then I hear the sharp intake of breath.

I hadn’t been discussing the “women question”.

That was the day before. For some reason, the vast London EcoBuild conference where I was speaking saw “women” as a natural agenda item. But the women-thing proved so hot it boiled over into my keynote.

The rear stalls are home to the hairy-legged Guardian reader contingent, but my heckler was right. Childcare is a serious issue. How can you expect to leave work to collect the kids at five and still get promoted with your more dedicated male colleagues?

I’d been on the Tube, 48 hours earlier, when news broke that, after years of unequal struggle – against Neurosurgeon Barbie, Athlete Barbie and Geek Barbie – Architect Barbie was finally admitted to the Mattel pantheon. So it seemed germane to brandish this newly incarnate Barbie and to note that her handicap, through the long struggle, wasn’t being female. It was being an architect. As Mattel’s spokeswoman mused, “children don’t actually know what a professional architect is”.

Having at least some vestigial sense of self-preservation, I did not reveal my favourite Barbie of all time was Pregnant Barbie. She was the ultimate designer-home, for curled up within her demountable belly was a small but perfectly formed full-term infant. Clip on, clip off. If only.

It is a reigning myth of our time that truth is something we make.

From Henry VIII to Norman Vincent Peale, the idea that we can override necessity and make our own rules has seemed to serve modern humanity well. Now, though, this idea has become dangerous. It lets us treat climate change as a matter of opinion, not fact. Lets us believe we can all over-consume forever, just so long as we get the technology right. Lets us pretend women are just men with breasts. Oh, and babies. Clip.

Ignore the fact that, despite decades of educational and statutory equality, women are still seriously under-represented at the pointy end of every profession except the oldest. In architecture there’s Zaha Hadid and Kazuyo Sejima, and after that it’s down to “first female”, “first black female”, “genius behind the throne” stuff. We blame conditioning (us) and the boys’ club (them). Women, we’re told, want what men want; sex, money, power. Anyone who suggests otherwise is accused of “essentialism” and women’s literature is packed with “my right to happiness” stuff.

For the boys-with-breasts mob, “50-50 by 2020” is a self-evident good goal, and unequal achievement simply further proof of the need for affirmative action at the top. Quotas. Mentors. Assisted childcare. But there is an inherent contradiction here. Positive discrimination presumes not just that gender balance is good for women, but also that it’s good for the professions; that women bring something special, something extra.

In architecture, for example, it is tacitly assumed that women are “greener”. Eco-conferences don’t do specials on Men in Architecture. Other standard Guardian-reader assumptions are that women listen and talk better, intuit better, are more client-responsive and collaborate better. This last is clearly rubbish.

Men collaborate – I give you football, war, organised crime, the boys’ club. But even if female communication superiority is, as I suspect, real (unless we’re putting this, too, down to conditioning) there’s still a contradiction. Women are either different from men or they’re not.

And there’s still childcare. For yes, it’s unfair. But what’s to be done?

Perhaps the Dutch have this sorted, what with state childcare and parental leave.

But how to manage it?

Clearly we can’t require bosses to reward those who, for whatever reason, achieve below their colleagues. Paid paternity leave is a gesture, but little more since, in truth, the first few months of a baby’s life are much the easiest.

But there’s something else. Even if childcare were fully funded; even if it ran all hours – all night, if necessary; even if it weren’t so often run by cretins and shysters, is that what we really, deep down, want? In the end it’s about love. Sure, men love babies. But (tell me I’m wrong) women love them more. Essentialist, perhaps, but god help us if it ever changes.

So the issue is not whether women “want it” as much as men, but whether they want it as much as they want to nurture their chicks. I’m as ambitious as anyone I know, male or female. I put both my kids in childcare as littlies, and wept each time I left them.

Yet I’m conscious of having made deep and ongoing career sacrifices for their sake. Yes, it’s hard. And yes, it still makes me furious.

Yet I cannot regard it as the fault of some system – unless it’s a system called nature. In all honesty, even if I had a 24/7 nanny, I’d give him the housework, the secretarial, but not the kids. Because that stuff matters. We don’t just have babies and pop them off to wet-nurse and boarding-school any more. Not only because we can’t. Because we won’t.

Because in truth, if women were like men, Barbie wouldn’t exist. Nature promised us love. She didn’t promise us fair. She didn’t promise clip-off babies. I think that’s why I said, suck it up.


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