The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Rebecca Bromwich

We’re all mad here…. And in this together

August 8 2016 8 August 2016


I was encouraged to see how many people have shared and commented on my July blog post about women being pushed and pulled away from career commitment and professional success.  I’m writing this to follow up on your comments with a clarification that it is important to remember we are all in this together.  The issues I was discussing concerning equality in the workplace generally, and legal profession specifically, involve not just mothers, but child-free women, and men too.

In her response to my post, Jennifer Taylor made an excellent point in stressing that challenges with surmounting barriers faced before we can even show up to paid work are not faced by women with children alone.  Caregiving for ailing relatives, basic self-care, and other forms of unpaid labour are also relevant consideration especially when they are disproportionately borne by women. I’m talking chiefly about the balance between paid work and unpaid work, but the balance between work and leisure is also important to longevity in a professional career.

Further, on reading U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent article “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” I got to thinking I needed clarify that the challenges I described in my blog post are not just relevant to women.  The disproportionate disadvantage faced by women professionals involves and implicates men.  If women have “lots of tabs open” — and we do — this does not mean men don’t.  Studies suggesting different brain function between the genders have recently been conclusively debunked.  We are all dealing with an increasingly connected, rapidly moving society and professional work sector that demands a high level of commitment and a great deal of our time.

It is not just women who are squeezed by “work creep”. By the numbers, working hours have increased not just for women but for men and a growing shift away from billable hour targets to monetary targets does not spell the end of long hours of work.  I see how men are affected by struggles balancing work and care in my personal life; I do not parent alone.  Yes, I do the bulk of the childcare, but I’m part of a team in my marriage. As he has on more than one occasion reminded me, my surgeon husband is not absent from school events because he is sunning himself on a beach but because he is carving cancer out of a child’s throat, or assisting in an open heart procedure.  Long hours and grueling conditions (like the 24- 26 hour shifts worked by resident physicians) make many professions hard to balance with one’s personal life, not just law. 

It is in no small part stereotypes about masculinity and assumptions that personal obligations should not properly alter men’s relationships to paid work that render the possibility of men asserting and claiming a space in caregiving so difficult.  This difficulty in turn contributes to the impossible predicaments women face when they try to manage their work and family lives.

As Obama said this August in his open letter about feminism, moving forward on social issues and ensuring equality within work sectors like the legal profession is not work that should be done only by, or only for, women.  As Obama wrote:

“We need to break through these limitations. We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs.

We need to keep changing the attitude that permits the routine harassment of women, whether they’re walking down the street or daring to go online. We need to keep changing the attitude that teaches men to feel threatened by the presence and success of women.

We need to keep changing the attitude that congratulates men for changing a diaper, stigmatizes full-time dads, and penalizes working mothers. We need to keep changing the attitude that values being confident, competitive, and ambitious in the workplace—unless you’re a woman. Then you’re being too bossy, and suddenly the very qualities you thought were necessary for success end up holding you back.”

As Anne-Marie Slaughter proclaimed in her recent book Unfinished Business: Men, Women, Work, Family, advancement towards equality for women involves a men’s revolution too. The relevance of unpaid caregiving burdens to men is salient partially because not all families or household follow the stereotypical male-female 1950s stereotype: solo parents and same sex spouses form growing numbers of households in Canada.  However, these issues also matter to men because the barriers women face in respect of unpaid labour are compounded by barriers preventing men from participating in it.  Men are too often stigmatized or reviled at work when they seek to share more equally in the lives of their relatives, children and homes. It is not invariably the case that where there is a woman “doing it all” somewhere near her in front of a TV set is a lazy man doing nothing, or at least substantially less.  Our economic calculations do not account, and our workplaces too often do not make space for, caregiving and other personal obligations. 

Men should be engaged as allies in work towards better policies, in businesses and from government, and in ensuring that men an not just women can and do access them.  The importance and efficacy of the involvement of men as allies in feminist work is clearly demonstrated by Prime Minister Trudeau’s immediate and effective institution of gender parity in the Federal Cabinet, for example.

So, yes, to return to Lewis Carroll, this time from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: The imperative to work to erode and eliminate barriers that foster and maintain systemic  gender inequalities in the legal profession is not a men’s issue or a women’s issue or an issue just for white people or middle class plutocrats, or heterosexual people alone.  We’re in this together: “We’re all mad here….  All the best people usually are.”

Rebecca Bromwich is the author of  Looking for Ashley: Re-Reading What the Smith Case Reveals about the Governance of Girls, Mothers and Families in Canada. The views expressed here are the author's own.

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