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Column: Why shouldn’t women choose motherhood over a job?

Valuing a ‘career’ over full-time parenting might be well-meaning, but it takes away everyone’s right to decide, writes Kate Katharina Ferguson.

Kate Katharina Ferguson

From academics comparing pens and penises, to well-meaning journalists wondering why mothers pick full-time parenting – Kate Katharina Ferguson argues that by spelling out roles for women, those in favour of gender equality can sometimes make the same mistakes as those who oppose it.

IN 1979, TWO women called Gilbert and Gubar collaborated to write a treatise called The Madwoman in the Attic. Their work opens with the question “Is the pen a metaphorical penis?”

For decades, academics and journalists have been considering women’s place in the world. They have been characterised as angels, whores, monsters and mothers. In the name of progress, their gift in writing has been likened to the male reproductive organ.

In western society, traditional notions of a woman’s place in the home have become taboo. Of late, the idea that a woman might choose to become a full-time mother rather than a professional has been rendered unthinkable.

The reluctance to accept that a woman may decide on motherhood over career advancement was exemplified by a New York Times article by Jack Ewing published last year, which meditated on the surprisingly small number of German women who return to fulltime work after availing of the government-paid 12-month parental leave.

The writer laments the fact that “Despite a battery of government measures … only about 14 percent of German mothers with one child resume full-time work, and only six percent of those with two”. He goes on to cite example after example of corporate bodies where only a tiny proportion of women have ended up at the top. Part of the problem, he muses is that “most schools still end at lunchtime, which has sustained the stay-at-home-mother image of German lore”.

‘Women are opting not to return to work’

Ewing expresses the misgiving that “when it comes to empowering women, no Teutonic drive or deference seems to work”. But far from promoting any egalitarian cause, such speculation denies women the right to make life choices outside of a socio-political narrative, which subtly yet forcefully dictates that having a career is more worthy than caring for a child and that empowerment can only be measured in economic terms.

Germany is a good example to focus on to illustrate the point. Government measures strongly support the mother and father in the workplace – each is allowed 12 months parental leave with pay and is guaranteed their job back at the end of it. (Scandalously, fathers in Ireland are not legally entitled to a single paid day of parental leave.) Although it’s probable that a larger proportion of German mothers return to part-time work, the fact that only 14 per cent go back to a fulltime career is indeed surprising.

In the absence of financial and political disincentives however, the fact that is continuously over-looked is that women are opting not to return to work. Instead of being respected as free agents, those that make this choice are treated as victims of a social order which is portrayed as significantly less than the sum of its egalitarian parts.

For true parity to exist, the Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus mantra must be debunked. Ewing describes Germany as “one of the countries in most need of female talent” (my italics) but doesn’t define what he means by the term. If men and women are to be considered equal, then how can there be a fundamental distinction between “male” and “female” talent? Surely an individual’s capabilities cannot be merely attributed to their gender?

This Friday, a seminar will be held at University College Cork to discuss the introduction of legislation which would remove funding from political parties which do not reach the 30 per cent quota of female candidates at the next election.

‘Do we want to go down the road of quotas?’

While it’s worthwhile to draw attention to gender disparities in top corporate and political positions, the discourse that surrounds it – while well-intentioned – does a good job of enforcing the idea that women remain passive beings with little control over the course of their lives.

Interestingly two prominent female politicians in both Ireland and Germany oppose gender quotas. Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton has come out against them, as has Germany’s Family Minister Kristina Schröder. The latter recently published a book titled Danke Emanzipiert Sind Wir Selber – which translates roughly as Thanks, But We’ve Emancipated Ourselves – in which she argues against the idea of dictating to women what kinds of social roles they should play.

If you take ‘gender equality’ to mean achieving a 50:50 female to male ratio within all sectors, we’re a long way away from achieving it. Do we want to go there anyway? How would society react to imposing a 30 per cent female quota on waste management or offshore drilling? Unless it’s accepted as equally scandalous that the proportion of male nurses is equivalent to that of female corporate executives, a discussion of gender can never be detached from a social weighting in favour of money.

Were society’s priorities reversed, public discussion might centre around the outrage that a man’s right to parental leave is considerably more restricted than a woman’s, that a boy’s emotional development is stunted by the expectation that he will advance up a corporate ladder and that the male body is no more than a military tool.

While you can’t spell “metaphorical penis” without pen, as I look again at my black felt tip I begin to think that Gilbert and Gubar might have been equipped with rather (pardon me) fertile imaginations.

Kate Katharina Ferguson is an Irish journalist working in Berlin. She writes atkatekatharina.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @KateKatharina.

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Kate Katharina Ferguson

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