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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 12-Aug-2010

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 841

Does Abbott understand women? Does anyone?



Last time I had a proper job – not, by the way, something I’d recommend – I took less maternity leave than I was entitled to. My boss, who later killed himself (but not, I think, for this reason) discouraged my early return. “The firm won’t thank you,” he remarked, somewhat cryptically. When I ignored his advice and returned anyway – partly because it was leave on half pay and partly through a misplaced sense of job loyalty – he set about proving his point. Bosses, in my experience, are like that, which no doubt says as much about me as about them.

What does it prove? Not a lot, perhaps, but when I hear Tony Abbott proposing six months’ fully paid maternity leave because he “doesn’t want his daughters to be juggling work and career as their mother’s generation had to”, I reach for my gun. Of course, both sides are implicated. Labor started the parental-leave wars. Which means both sorts of focus groups, blue and pink, figure it’s a major crowd-pleaser. But does it really solve anything? Is it even the issue?

Abbott’s parental leave scheme is widely hailed as evidence that he does after all, and contrary to popular belief, “understand women”. (You’ll notice, being ever so non-gender specific, we dutifully call it parental leave – until it comes to voting patterns. Then, suddenly, it’s a women’s issue because, while plenty of fathers will and do avail themselves of the perk, women actually have to.)

But does he, Abbott, understand women? Come to that, does anyone?

A recent book by the Boston Consulting Group’s Michael Silverstein and Kate Sayre offers an answer, at least to the smaller question of what women want. Women Want More is the book’s title, and it is subtitled, How to Capture Your Share of the World’s Largest, Fastest-growing Economy. How to understand them, that is, in order to exploit them.

The argument, based on a survey of 12,000 women in 22 countries, is simple. Women, as chief financial officers of almost all households and increasingly self-financing as well, control two-thirds of the world’s $US18 trillion discretionary spend (with a further expected increase of $US5 trillion in the next five years). Women are the fastest growing sector of both the workforce and of the economy, representing “a growth in income”, says Silverstein, “bigger than the combination of China and India”. Pleasing women is suddenly the task, not just of the world’s lovers, but also of the world’s capitalists.

Yet, the book notes, women are seriously stressed, with the average woman committed 113 hours a week and still feeling guilty because every one of those hours takes time from some other unfulfilled demand.

Is this, as some insist, a whinge? Does the fact that previous generations had it harder mean women should suck it up? Or should they fight on? Is the fight even winnable?

I once did a series of mentoring talks for young women – natch; do men ever need mentoring, just for being men? The subject was work-life balance. Admittedly, I’m the worst person to ask. I don’t do balance. I don’t even believe in it. Balance, to me, is the attribute of a corpse.

Which may be just as well because, as I was obliged to tell these women, there is no answer. Every mother’s hour spent on children, or work, or home, or partner, or friends, or fitness brings a concomitant guilt about those things not occupying that same 60 minutes. I called this “contested time”, before figuring maybe that’s the true meaning of “balance” – guilty if you do, guilty if you don’t.

Generally, this does not pertain for men. You don’t typically find fathers pleading for a(nother) half-day off to hand out singlets at the school athletics carnival, or sneaking out at 5.30 to make daycare before they throw the kid into the street.

Men don’t have to choose between parenting and success. This is still feminism’s sticking point. There are exceptions, but in general it is still true that, male or female, parental leave or no parental leave, the people who top their professions are, quite rightly, those whose dedication is total.

So we must either redefine “success” (forget recognition, darling, it’s all about how happy you are as a person) or accept that, on the whole, it is available only to non-parents or bad parents.

This is generally considered OK for men. Literature is full of heroes with dysfunctional personal lives. Not women, though. With the notable exception of Lisbeth Salander, female leads are gorgeous, smart and loving.

My point is not that women should rush to claim their equal share of dysfunctionality, but that perhaps the future will see it differently.

Perhaps, rather than envying the silverbacks and psychopaths who captain our world, the wise beings of the future will be grateful for these people’s willingness to live one-dimensional lives, their readiness to snarl and spit and manage up, sacrificing their hopes of genuine happiness. And for what? For us, a balanced society and their scrumptious fat cat paypackets.


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