Reflections on Cherie Booth’s Lecture.

In her inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor of the Open University, Cherie Booth QC spoke eloquently on the struggle for women’s rights across the world and highlighted a wide range of issues, from the sentence of lashings given this week to a Saudi woman caught driving to the low number of women in boardrooms. Nobody can doubt the massive impact Cherie’s campaigning has had across the world and particularly in the developing countries where her foundation has helped open doors for women to be active in politics and community building. But looking at the situation closer to home I can’t help thinking that she, along with may other women’s rights campaigners, is barking up the wrong tree!

The focus of those campaigning for better representation of women in the higher ranks of business generally focuses on flexible working and legislation to force companies not to discriminate against women with caring responsibilities. I’m not going to argue against that plan but if you want true equality we should also be campaigning for the right of men who take time out of work to fulfil caring duties. Whilst it is socially acceptable for women to take a career break to bring up baby, there is a problem for men who choose to take on the caring role and they frequently find it even harder to re-enter the workplace. I suspect the only reason we don’t hear about that much is that there aren’t many of them nd therein lies the problem.

If we really want a society where women are treated equally it is just as important to ensure that men are treated equally. We need a cultural shift both in the workplace and at home to a situation where job work and home work tasks are divided by personal decisions and not set by cultural norms. In a society where it is equally likely that men or women take career breaks to fulfil the role of carer there would no longer be any reason to discriminate against women and the problem is solved.
Whilst campaigners focus on making workplaces accommodate the additional home work expectations placed on women we will not make true progress towards an equal society – the end result is that women take on high powered jobs in addition to most of the home work so effectively having two jobs.

There is no question that Cherie has had an amazing journey from her working class routes to being the very successful lawyer she is today. I am in complete awe of her achievements and pleased that she is there to stand up for women’s rights, including my rights. But the amazing thing is that she has managed that at the same time as supporting her family. I can’t help wondering what else she would have done if the social norm had been for Tony to be responsible for changing the nappies!

Things are slowly changing but we can’t hope to get equality in women’s careers without a parallel change to having equality in our homes. The new age man who “helps around the house” is a step in the right direction but we need to go further. It’s time for men to take responsibility within our homes and societies and to play a full part in the world outside the workplace. And in return women can no longer expect their male partners to be the breadwinners.

It’s not just because I want some help with the washing, I genuinely believe that men have a lot to offer and a lot to gain from us all rebalancing our job work and home work. Unfortunately I don’t expect such a cultural shift within my lifetime but I am hopeful for the next generation. In the meantime I’ll gratefully accept a little “help around the house” and put up with the imbalance of money and home work that my partner and I bring to our household.

Linda Robson
The Open University

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