Volume 4 Number 5
A Person's Work is Never Done
01 May 1991

In every sphere of life, it seems, women are expected to play a support role, assisting men to occupy more effectively the centre stage.

I once applied for the post of Personal Assistant to the Director of a national charity. As the job paid less than a corresponding position in a commercial organization, I expected to be asked about my interest in the charity's work.

Not so. After a technical test, the first question from the Director was whether I would be willing to water plants and make coffee. I discovered that his present PA was expected to keep track of his dental appointments and his wife's birthday. I have nothing against plants or coffee, or even dentists, but surely it is a waste for one person's contribution to be limited solely to the role of office-nanny. In the end I wasn't offered the job anyway.

Since the mid-Seventies 40 per cent of the workforce in Britain have been women. Whole areas of work are signed over to them. Ninety per cent of all domestic workers, clerical workers, secretaries, nurses and canteen assistants are women. Ninety per cent of all surgeons, architects, academics and senior bankers, on the other hand, are men.

In every sphere of life, it seems, women are expected to play a support role, assisting men to occupy more effectively the centre stage. You could argue that it is the definition of centre stage that is wrong: that traditionally female roles such as childrearing have farther-reaching effects than any traditionally male occupation. I would agree. But certain aspects of `maleness', whether inherent or acquired, are deified in our Western society. To be successful means to have a job which is high in prestige and pay but also high in pressure.

Perhaps this is why some of the loudest proponents of fulltime mothers and housewives are `successful' men. They rely on their partners for the menial jobs they do not have time to do for themselves. The British politician Shirley Williams commented wryly at a particularly busy time of her career, `What I need is a wife.'

Where have these restricting gender stereotypes in the `Christian' West come from? Not from the Bible. Jesus neither marginalized nor condescended to women. He elevated their status in contemporary society by accepting what they had to give and sometimes comparing this favourably to what men offered. Nor did all Biblical women adopt a traditionally feminine role - there are examples of women prophets, church leaders and financiers.

In her book What's right with feminism, Elaine Storkey, from whom I have borrowed much including factual data, urges Christians to work for a transformation of our current order. Not to eliminate differences between men and women, but to allow each to contribute and receive according to their individual gifts and personality.

In March I became a mother. If, after my maternity leave, I return to fulltime work outside the home, life promises to be fraught. Many working women's lives are a cycle of tiredness, stress and guilt as they strive for excellence in two jobs at once. If I stay at home fulltime, the prognosis is even worse. One study revealed that 70 per cent of housewives were dissatisfied with their role. The incidence of depression among housebound women is high.

My husband and I would both like to enjoy the care of our daughter and to balance this with part-time work outside the home. My employer readily agreed to my returning to the same post as half of a job share. My husband also works for a sympathetic employer, but his position as a manager means he is unlikely to be able to work less than 28 hours a week.

Men, and women who occupy places in the `male' sphere, are expected to devote themselves exclusively to their careers. Little provision is made for any childcare responsibilities they may have. To take leave at short notice to look after a sick child is regarded as unprofessional. Job-sharing is rare in managerial positions, and men who job-share for a period often find it hard to return to fulltime employment.

The need for new working patterns will become more acute as the prospect of full employment slips further into the distance. Unemployment is all the more devastating for someone whose only contribution to the family is as the breadwinner; just as household tasks can become drudgery if the burden is borne by one partner alone.

The answer is not to create a society of New Men and New Women who rely on the nanny and the cleaning lady for the essential but less `important' roles. We must allow our `male' concept of success to be tempered by `female' qualities such as caring and relationship-building. If we can find ways of breaking down the walls between work, home and children, not only women, but men too, will have the chance to develop fully - in a society which genuinely values all equally.

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