Nicky Gemmell writes a sensitive and thought provoking column in the Weekend Australian Magazine each week, one that I have come to look forward to reading (after mourning the loss of one of my favourite columnists, Susan Maushart). Last week’s column was no exception as she appealed to women to find their inner strength and fulfill their dreams, as an alternative to becoming resigned to being mere shadows of themselves in their later years. Her reference to Australian Poet Judith Wright’s lament of Australian women of a certain age, “This is the hour when women hear their lives go ticking by.” is nothing short of chilling.
In this case, Gemmell’s inspiration is a former corporate lawyer called Catherine Brenner who advises women on what she calls “the rules of the game”. These are rules, which according to Brenner are known “intuitively” by men but must be learned by women. Brenner’s rules attempt to assist women to further themselves in a “Professional” environment, which for Brenner seems to equate to a “man’s world”. Whilst most of what Brenner counsels is no more than simply teaching women to be more assertive about what they want and to believe in themselves, upon reading her advive one cannot help but feel that the gist of her approach appears to be more about teaching women to behave more like the men which inhabit this domain.
Whilst some women may no doubt benefit from becoming more assertive in the workplace and trying to increase their confidence in what they can achieve, some of Brenner’s advice seriously undermines the work that feminists have done to increase equality and opportunities for women in the workplace. In particular Brenner advises women not to undermine other women, even inadvertently. In regards to this, Brenner states “If a female colleague’s running late, don’t say, ‘She’s stuck on the school run.’ You don’t have to explain. Men don’t want to hear it.” (italics added) Gemmell goes on to explain that Brenner’s message here is: “be professional; keep the domestic and work worlds separate.”
To say that with this advice, Brenner has taken the feminist movement back 40 years would be an understatement. The separation of the private and public spheres of life, an approach which only started after the industrial revolution, has been one of the key concerns of women’s equality movements and informed the great feminist mantra “the personal is political”. Given the recent advances made in society in order to make workplaces more flexible and accommodating to parental obligations (e.g. flexible working hours, on site child care, parental leave, carer’s leave to name but a few), Brenner’s advice to shove our “domestic” worlds into the cupboard and pretend they don’t exist is farcical. Women (and men for that matter) should be able to clearly explain to their employers and colleagues when work commitments clash with domestic commitments such as child care and be able to find a reasonable solution. That is the way of the future, especially if we are to retain women (and men – look at David Bartlett, the Premier of Tasmania who resigned in January 2011 to spend more time with his family) in the workforce.
Perhaps, instead of heeding Brenner’s advice to “keep the domestic and work worlds separate”, women and men should be advised to have confidence in their dual roles as parents and employees and have the strength to negotiate an employment arrangement which can accommodate these roles. Part of this involves not having to “hide” or be ashamed of a legitimate parental commitment, as if one had slept in or had a long coffee break. A large part of changing social norms is changing the attitudes that inform them so next time you are held up at school or because you were dealing with a screaming toddler, don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed, state clearly that’s why you were late and that it couldn’t be helped and launch into that meeting baby!!