of men (but not of mice)

This is a post I've been meaning to write since I finished my Women in International Security Conference at Georgetown Uni (Washington, DC) in June (just before I left Washington for California). I think it has suffered in not being posted when the thoughts were still fresh in my head (mainly because I can't be bothered to actually care much about it now that some time has passed) but I reckoned I'd put it up anyway.

One of the running themes of the WIIS Summer Symposium, which I attended in early June 2007, was ongoing discussion about balancing one's career with personal life. Two things should probably be made clear before I write more:

- "work" was equated with (mostly) non-academic but executive-style (most women who were talking to us about it were policymakers or consultants) jobs and "personal life" was equated with (non gay) marriage. In other words, we were talking of work and men.

- And, yet, men were absent from much of this discussion. It was a discussion by women for women (both young and older) about men. It was a discussion about "compromise" and "being lucky to have had an understanding husband"* and how the chap was "supportive" of the speaker's job and career. It was a discussion about having given up a promising career (at least two of the women had this trajectory) to look after her children but "not having any regrets" and about how bosses and "mentors" (almost always men) were "supportive" in letting her (them) work part-time. It was a discussion about "not being guilty" to hire a nanny in order to get back to work.

Questions about it being the norm to have an "understanding" husband (in the sense of the woman continuing to work and the man sharing in the childcare/housework) and, if there was finances, hiring a nanny to make life easier all around (after all, why not get someone trained for looking after a kid?) were sidestepped as easily as was the fact that, really, there was no bloke speaking out in favour of (or not) men.

During the course of the Symposium, there was a lot of talk about how brilliant we all were. How brilliant women were. How supportive and encouraging of each other women were. And, there was also frequent mention of "not like men". Or, "we applaud each other (unlike men)". But, as I wrote above, there were no men to agree or disagree with this stereotyping.

All in all, for a non-American person, it was a rather depressing discussion. None of the (main) panellists in the formal discussion or in the many informal discussions which followed seemed to have had a partner (husband or whatnot) who participated equally in childcare. They all seemed to think they were fortunate to have a husband who "supported" them going back to work! That, to me, seems incredibly daft. I look around now at the people I know--the few who read PTSD and the many who don't--and, in most cases, the bloke** is as equally involved in parenting and "supporting" his partner as the woman is. Midnight feedings and changing nappies are not just the woman's job, despite what we heard in WIIS.

Maybe it is a generational thing. All the women who talked to us of balancing work and family were of (my) parents' generation. But, then, my father fed, changed and carried me (and my siblings at various points in time) about (and this was the 1980's). As did his mates. My Mum (sensibly) produced us and decided it was time for a bit of a rest. Husbands (and nannies, if they could be afforded) were part of the child-rearing process. I'm not saying this wasn't a challenge--Asian blokes are not really supposed to become part of child-rearing than those here in the West. But, in my family and in other families I know, people did what they must. After all, most couples aren't too keen on having one of them be the one looking after a crying, messy, hungry child all the time. Sharing the duties then becomes a matter of consideration, of partnership and that's how it was.

I'm also not saying that balancing work and a personal life is not a challenge. Not that I'd know since I don't actually have a personal life but I know most people do! But, I reckon it's important to keep in mind that it's not just a challenge to women. It's a challenge for everyone. And, having discussions about what "women" do and what "women" can expect from men, without actually having any man involved in said discussions doesn't help in learning about and from each other's experiences (since that was, ostensibly, the point of the discussions).***

* The word "partner" was rarely mentioned.

** Substitute whatever gender you want, as necessary. I'll stay with "bloke" since that was the focus of the WIIS discussions.

*** This was actually part of my comments for the overall programme. I also added that perhaps having an academic and also someone from overseas (all the panellists were older policymakers based in the United States) might help in clarifying that "women's experiences" in balancing work and a personal life were more varied than we heard of. Especially as the participants themselves were from 16 countries.


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