Who needs feminism?

I read a Harvard Business Review blog post recently by US-based consultants Tara Mohr and Whitney Johnson, who think women are too well behaved in the workplace. Mohr, who trains women for senior roles, and Johnson, who gives lectures on innovation, say women need to be more “disruptive.” A “good girl” strategy works at school and through university, and women graduate with high grades and then move into promising careers using this approach. But they’re under-represented in board rooms and executive positions, and this, Mohr and Johnson believe, is because they’re too compliant. They’re not loud enough. They’re not enough like men. So they don’t get the top jobs. Uh-huh.

There were so many things the post didn’t mention about the factors that stop women from progressing into executive roles, and while I like the idea that people can act to change their circumstances, I don’t think being louder will rocket women into the top jobs. But for me perhaps the most glaring omission was that the post made no mention of child rearing. Women continue to bear most responsibility for raising children and it has a huge effect on their careers. I know this has become the elephant in the living room when it comes to discussing women and equality at work, especially career progression. These days, you can be shouted down and called anti-feminist if you even speak of it.

For my last novel In Falling Snow I researched the experiences of women doctors and nurses in World War I and in 1978. Women in 1914 who had careers didn't have children. By 1978, the first generation to have it all hit their stride. I thought the modern women would be much better off. But having it all wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be, as any mother with a full-time job will tell you.Former Obama top aide Anne-Marie Slaughter was criticised last year for saying she couldn’t do justice to her job and effectively mother her teenaged children. I was glad she said it. Like many mothers, I work, but I feel I’m constantly on the back foot in everything I do. I have it much easier than Slaughter, one child, I live with a super-involved dad, and I work a job I can pick my hours in. Some of my friends are not so lucky. They wake at dawn with the youngest, get everyone ready, rush to work after school dropoff, hoping they're in a clean frock, work all day, leave by five thirty to pick up the kids from after-school and child care, get home in time to cook dinner, bath and bed, and get up the next morning and start again. One woman told me her 'me' time is between four and five in the morning.

Feminism has been a force for such good in the world. My mother's generation couldn't work once they were pregnant. Many fathers didn't know their children. It was feminism that changed all that and we are better off because of it. But feminism ignored women as mothers, and it ignored their children. It’s never made sense to me because feminism is a movement that’s so fit for purpose to help them.

In Nordic countries, where governments realised after World War II that women and men should be in the workforce for economic prosperity, two years leave on full pay for a parent to care for young children is a given, and return-to-work strategies are easy on families. Those countries that still have institutionalised child care – some don’t agree it’s a good idea – provide not-for-profit, high-quality care that gives children positive early experiences. Everybody benefits.

I've been heartened lately by the work of a student Facebook group that started at Duke University that posts photos of responses to the question, “Who needs feminism?” This plays on current thinking that feminism has reached its use-by date. “I need feminism because...” It's so simple. Well, I need feminism because I want those students at Duke and their friends to be all right when they come to negotiate work and family, and I want their children to be all right, and I’m not sure, with the world we’re leaving them, that they will be. Maybe that’s what we ought to be shouting more loudly about in the workplace. 

Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 7 December 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!