Author: Professor Jan Thomas
Can the words caregiver and ambitious be in the same sentence?
Professor Jan Thomas takes a look at how society can move away from tacit assumptions about caring and ambition to champion diversity for all.
We all rehearse the narratives around the benefits of diversity in the workplace. How often have women looked to other successful women for tips and tricks, or for sheer inspiration? How many functions do we go to where we seek out other women for support and camaraderie? Not that there is anything wrong with these things – I have actively supported such events all of my life and know they have significant value.
Despite all the hard work of women the world over, and despite the considerable legislative inroads in countries like Australia and New Zealand, there remains a tacit social assumption that women will be the fall back, the ‘go-to’ people who care for others. The historical roots of this social phenomenon – that of paid work, paid less for work, and attributes necessary for hard physical work – all make this understandable. It also leads to an assumption of socialisation into the ‘caring roles’. However, in countries like ours, should these hold true in the twenty first century?
Rather than focus only on efforts to enable women to care and work, we should also be focusing on the question: “What is inhibiting male workers from reaching their full potential as carers alongside their work aspirations?” In sectors such as education, men frequently have access to similar leave entitlements for caring responsibilities. If a workplace does not have this, they should be asking themselves why not? However, I observe that men frequently do not take that leave. I fear the social constructs of male image equates ‘caring leave’ or part time work either with having no ambition or with not working sufficiently hard. When men do not access leave provision, part time work or flexible arrangements, the role of primary carer falls to women. Until the gender pay gaps are closed, and we can use the terms ‘ambitious’, ‘hard working’ and ‘working flexibly to accommodate caring responsibilities’ in the same sentence, the good efforts of all those who champion diversity will be in vain. We need to be mindful of how we describe workers generally. We need to focus on outcomes not hours. We need to celebrate men who swim against the tide as carers for children and relatives and not see these activities as mutually exclusive to ambition, hard work and success.
Professor Jan Thomas is Vice Chancellor of Massey University in New Zealand and has previously held various senior executive positions at Murdoch University and the University of Notre Dame Australia.