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Why can't men be more like women?

By Nandini Pandya

Nowhere in all this hand-wringing does anyone stop to actually ask women (and men) what they need -- to be good mothers (or fathers), to be good workers, to be responsible members of their communities, to be whole human beings.

Fox invited Crane to supper and provided nothing for his entertainment but some soup made of pulse, which was poured out into a broad flat stone dish. The soup fell out of the long bill of Crane at every mouthful, and his vexation at not being able to eat afforded the Fox much amusement. Crane, in his turn, asked Fox to sup with him, and set before her a flagon with a long narrow mouth, so that he could easily insert his neck and enjoy its contents at his leisure. Fox, unable even to taste it, met with a fitting requital, after the fashion of her own hospitality.

I can't help thinking of this fable each time the issue of (lack of) women's participation in the workforce comes up. What is amazing is the high frequency with which this issue rears its head and the sameness of the knee-jerk reactions and responses to the issue.

This time around it started when Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, put forth the idea that women participate less in Math and Science fields because they may be wired differently. Soon after, there was the announcement that Harvard would spend $50 million over the next ten years recruiting more women and minorities. And finally, John Tierney of the New York Times postulated that women are not seen in large numbers in upper management because they are not competitive enough.

The common thread that runs through all these faux controversies is the same as Proffessor Henry Higgins' eloquent lament in "My Fair Lady" -- why can't a woman be more like a man? If Henry Higgins (or George Bernard Shaw) were living today, they would probably say, "Why don't they just work longer hours? If only they were more competitive! If only they would master Science and Math and Technology!"

Nowhere in all this hand-wringing does anyone stop to actually ask women (and men) what they need -- to be good mothers (or fathers), to be good workers, to be responsible members of their communities, to be whole human beings.

My daughter will start college this fall. So, it is for 18 years that I have been trying to find the missing factor that will balance the equation -- 10-plus hours a day spent away from home if I want to work full-time and have a "career: versus 15 hours a week (and heaps more when school is out) that the kids must be left to their own devices - not just unattended, but also un-nurtured.

Although this last statement sounds like a value judgment about women who choose to work full-time, that is not my intention at all. I think all of us -- men and women, those who work for pay and those who don't -- will agree that when a caregiver has to spend a bulk of her or his time outside the home, there is bound to be a scaling back on some other front. After all, while expectations of employee output have grown in the search to squeeze out the maximum productivity and while commutes have become ever longer, the day still has the same 24 hours that it has always had.

Although balancing work and family most commonly becomes an issue when there are kids involved, it comes up under other circumstances as well. In the movie "One True thing," the daughter (played by Renee Zellweger) is expected to (and in fact does) move back home and care for her cancer-stricken mother (played by Meryl Streep). She ends up having to put her career on hold. And this happens while her father (the college professor) and her brother (the college student) go on with their lives largely uninterrupted.

Interestingly enough, it is during her sojourn at home, that the daughter comes to a better understanding of her mother's stay-at-home life and her father's self-centered one. I came away with two insights from this turn of events.

One, that there would be more respect for the unpaid, unnoticed work of caregivers on the home front, if more of the movers and shakers found themselves in the same situations. I can't help thinking that much of the status quo is because they just don't know and also because there is no cost associated with not knowing.

Two, maybe the father was self-centered (and the mother was an inadvertent enabler of that trait) precisely because being in a competitive environment required this type of a joint enterprise. It is amazing how being steeped in a certain culture over a long period of time makes us into creatures of that culture, making us forget along the way the people that we were before and might have become if those pressures were absent.

So, here are some ideas to try to start figuring this out -- even if it does not benefit our generation, maybe it will benefit our daughters and sons (or their children). After all, bogged down as we may sometimes feel in the work of raising our kids, as I have learnt, their entry into the adult world is not as far off as we might think.

a) Many women would gladly settle for 75 percent pay if they could work 75 percent of the 40 hour week. Creative flextime, and job sharing arrangements can make this a viable option. In fact, I know this can work, because I have been fortunate enough to work with managers (yes, most of them men) who have seen the benefit of having a committed, passionate, dedicated and oh-so-grateful employee even though she is available only 75 percent of the time.

b) Instead of penalizing a woman for not having the latest fad acronyms on her resume, ask this: "can this job be done by someone who has been out of the traditional workforce for 5 years?" That is, does this candidate have the ability to learn, adapt and grow? If yes, how about practicing a different kind of affirmative action by giving her credit for life experience, maturity, tenacity? Raising kids in today's society and juggling many balls requires a lot more smarts and heart than inhabiting one cubicle!

c) Fathers give up much in terms of spending time with their kids, and shoulder much of the burden of providing for the family. Businesses need to be much less macho about the commitments they expect from both male and female employees. One partner (usually the female) would not feel compelled to scale back on her career goals if there was a likelihood of a more equitable sharing of the burden between the two partners. If my husband must spend 13 hours a day out of the home, I have less of a choice when it comes to committing myself to a long commute and a demanding work load.

I quoted Aesop's fable in the opening paragraphs, because just like Fox and Crane, sadly, it is still mostly a case of "be more like us if you want to eat with us", rather than "what can be done so all can enjoy the meal?" There currently isn't even an awareness among the powers-that-be that it is they that might need changing, that there might be other more creative ways to approach the work-family balance issue, that it is not only about women.

At the birth of the American republic, as he and others worked on drafting the Declaration of Independence, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John "Remember the Ladies." Over two hundred years later, women's place in society is still an issue. But, it is not only about the ladies (if it ever was)! The "balancing act" is not only about balancing work and family. It is also about balancing men's and women's roles.

mmo : July 2005

Nandini Pandya has a graduate degree in Mathematics. She is the mother of two teens and an IT professional. She is the founder and publisher of a weekly online magazine www.desijournal.com. Her blog can be found at http://myturn2.blogspot.com
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