Work, mothering and female empowerment part 1 – where are we truly at?
Work, mothering and female empowerment part 1 – where are we truly at?
The arena of women, especially mothers, undertaking paid work has faced considerable scrutiny for many years with political, religious, cultural, economic/financial and social systems all having input on the subject. Throughout history working class women have had to work so that they and their families could survive, but for other women, their relationship with paid work has been quite a different story.
The changes that have taken place with modernisation over the centuries, together with world wars, have meant that the level and type of way women have interacted with a paid work environment has waxed and waned substantially. Where financially possible along the way, women subscribed to the ideal of women’s roles being that of the ‘housewife and mother’, whose job was to take care of the children and the running of the household while the husband worked and was valued as the breadwinner and head of the family. It was seen as a privilege to not work and used as a status symbol within society. Mothers who did participate in the workforce voluntarily were looked upon as akin to abandoning their children and their behaviour was judged as quite ethically and morally wrong. What wasn’t spoken about was that the use of antidepressant and tranquiliser medications increased dramatically for women during the 1950’s and 1960’s – which strongly suggests that women weren’t enjoying their prescribed roles as much as it was implied they were or should be. It’s easy to gloss over the above information, especially if we feel it’s ‘old news’ and therefore irrelevant today. But still at the current time, the pressures and limitations on women’s participation in paid work remain immense. While female empowerment, workplace gender equality, work-life balance, anxiety and stress management are championed, many women’s lived reality suggests that these concepts lack genuine substance and there is little real questioning as to why any imbalances exist in the first place.
To delve a little deeper into the enormity of what’s going on here, it’s firstly worth understanding how widespread and systemic the barriers are surrounding women and women and work at a global level:
Women are more likely to be unemployed than men with only 49.6% of women compared to 76.1% of men in paid employment
Women predominately work in lower paid, lower skilled positions that have less security and have little or no access to workplace regulations and social protections. Only 4% of women are in the upper echelons of the workforce
Women generally carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and caring work than men on top of undertaking their paid employment, i.e. they are unofficially working two jobs
The wage gap continues, especially for women with children, with women earning 77 cents for every dollar that men earn
Many women, especially in developing countries, rely on informal forms of employment (street vendors, agriculture, family businesses etc.), which places them in very vulnerable positions economically and socially
Women, especially migrant women, are overwhelmingly represented in domestic work, which leaves them especially defenseless to exploitation, with 57% of domestic workers having no limitation on their working hours and living and working under the constant threat of sexual harassment/exploitation/abuse
Violence against women continues, even amongst countries who have prevention provisions in place. In the European Union, 55% of women report having experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15 and of these women, 32% experienced it in the workplace. In Australia, 39% of women have experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years
Even today, not all women are free to work, with only 67 countries having laws against gender discrimination in hiring practices
Maternity leave is still not universally available[2,3]
Clearly, we still have many structural limitations imposing on women and their participation in the workforce that are coming even more to the fore in the current COVID-19 climate. What is also very apparent has been the rise in mental health conditions and the crossover into mothering and the workforce arenas. While mental health issues have increased across the board, women are particularly vulnerable with research showing that women are reporting high or very high levels of psychological distress at a greater rate than men, and that one in six women are experiencing anxiety and depression in the perinatal period. There are many elements that contribute to the decline in women’s mental health during this time in their lives, such as increased stress due to difficulty adjusting to motherhood, sleep deprivation, anxiety around the health of their baby, lack of support, poverty, family violence and the exacerbation of prior mental health conditions.
However, another notable factor I’ve observed in my role as a counsellor in this field, is that women also regularly struggle with managing caring for a child and the demands of work life. It’s seems relatively rare that the two domains sit well together.
It's worth noting here that poor maternal mental health is spread across all socioeconomic groups, however, there’s no doubt that working class women particularly bear the brunt in a multitude of ways. The demand to economically sustain their families is enormous and usually requires a huge degree of self-sacrifice, which inevitably take a toll on the woman’s health and wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, and although not exclusive to the domain of working class mothers, Australian data highlights that 92 per cent of serious work-related mental health condition claims were attributed to anxiety disorders and again, females were impacted at higher rates than men.
Some women are aware of their floundering mental health and use medication and other resources to help turn things around, but many others aren’t aware that they are living with constant low-grade anxiety. I can certainly relate through my own experiences as a working mother when women say they feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped to cope but dare not admit it to family, friends or colleagues. Instead, we feel we must maintain the façade to the outside world that we are handling our lives with apparent ease. Often women also experience poor sleep quality and talk about feeling a sense of dread as they wake each morning to find that they are still on the exact same treadmill as they were on the day before.
We really need to be asking, ‘what is going on here; what are we missing if women are constantly feeling dis-connected, anxious and depleted, despite all the advances that have been made and all the solutions we’ve attempted over the years?’.
Balancing the tensions, both overt and covert, remains as challenging as ever and any gains made in one area have been at the expense of another and, as previously highlighted, this is especially so when paid work is undertaken in conjunction with motherhood. Mothers working in paid employment are viewed as ‘normal’ these days and held up as proof that women have achieved a degree of female empowerment. Many mothers want, and often financially need, to participate in the workforce. Society also deems that a ‘working woman’ is somehow contributing more to the community and their country than a mother at home caring for her children. Some women have left careers to have their baby and only have a short window of maternity leave before they need to get back into the work stream or risk losing future promotion prospects. Others seek work for the status and recognition they’ve attached to their careers. I’m finding another common story with women is that they secretly find the job of caring for a child mundane compared to their old life, and so they can’t wait to get back to work. Others are lonely and want the company of adults around them, even if they don’t have a close relationship with their work colleagues. I’ve also noticed that work and having a career are often tied in with not just the woman’s sense of self-worth, they’re also linked to the belief that providing a comfortable material life for their family is testimony of good mothering. There is a strong push from within women themselves and others around them that drives women to pursue work wherever they can find it in the belief that the most important goal is to provide their children with better life opportunities than they have experienced themselves.
However, on the flip side of this picture, women are still undertaking the bulk of their traditional roles. The reality is that across the cultural and socioeconomic spectrum, many old beliefs around gender roles linger on, and finding a genuine work life balance is difficult to achieve. Women have been taught from birth that it is their duty to care for others first and their needs come a distant second. In fact, I’ve found there’s often a certain pride amongst women who perceive self-sacrifice and taking care of others 24/7 is proof of womanhood and of being a good mother. Within this environment, competition, comparison and jealousy are fuelled by the desire to be seen as managing all the demands across the various life domains without missing a beat.
Society usually still only gives lip service to men taking equal responsibility for the childcaring and rearing and the household functioning. The sense of entitlement that comes with the male ‘provider’ mentality remains quite strong in society, even if the woman is also working, studying and/ or providing care for other family members.
Of course, there are families where men do step in and there is more gender equality in the home, but my experience tells me these situations are the exception rather than the norm. While many mothers resent the unfairness of this arrangement, they nonetheless dare not complain due to fears about the likely reactions of their partners, family, friends, and society generally. It’s a case of ‘shut up and keep going’ as best they can, or risk being shamed and blamed by the world around them.
Partly as a consequence of this setup, I’m finding that women regularly report that they feel constantly exhausted and overwhelmed. Juggling work with all the other demands of life becomes a daily battle that leaves women feeling hurt, angry, sad and disillusioned. They initially pin their hopes on others around them changing so that things fall into place, but that rarely happens. Instead, time goes by and the commonly heard cries are comments such as ‘I have to beg or yell/scream to get help’; ‘I feel invisible; no one notices me except when they want something; it’s like I’m just a 24/7 slave to everyone else’s wants and needs’; ‘I feel like a single parent’ and ‘I’ve got no ‘me’ time’. Existing day to day in this way takes a real toll on women’s health, with widespread stress and anxiety causing havoc in people’s lives. It’s not a shock therefore, to see a corresponding rise in levels of addiction, whether that be drugs and alcohol, food consumption, social media, gambling or shopping etc., as they are all ultimately designed to provide women with ways to numb or actively divert their attention away from their inner discontentment. All the above strongly indicates that achieving the often touted work-life balance and genuine gender equality is still not the norm for women.
Why are so many people exhausted?
When we live in anxiousness our body never truly rests and we end up exhausted.
When we stop, step back and honestly seek a more holistic understanding of this situation, we can start to see that all the energy invested into concepts such as female empowerment, gender equality, work-life balance and mothering is off track and therefore it doesn’t make sense to keep doing the same thing and hoping for a change in the outcomes. Our current change mechanisms are aimed at increasing women’s participation in the workforce, but what’s not so obvious is the way that underpinning this whole environment is a way of life that doesn’t value ‘care’, including genuine self-care, and instead emphasises functional output as a measure of a ‘successful’ woman. The harder a woman works, the more she is rewarded, whether that be in monetary or sociocultural terms, but along with this is often the exhaustion and ill health which is frequently downplayed until it can’t be ignored. Self-care is quite widely spoken about and even championed within workplaces, yet the reality is that it’s seen as secondary to functional activities and doesn’t address the underlying premise that the woman must keep going, both as a mother and as a worker. However, when we honestly look at the state of women’s lives we can see that without self-care everything else ultimately falls apart as it is a foundational aspect of self-worth and sets the standard for the quality of our relationship with both ourselves and others.
We are constantly working on finding the solutions externally but are missing the message that the ‘care’ factor is a vital, but missing ingredient. Self-care is the starting point and is a way of learning to know and love what’s within us, rather than hoping for a reward of some kind from the outside to keep us going. The fact is that we are much more than the physical beings we can see when we look in the mirror and we all have our inner qualities that are completely separate to the outside world. Speaking personally, it has taken me years to realise that I, and every woman, have an intrinsic beauty with everything we need already existing deep within us. We are all naturally quite delicate and exquisite on the inside – even the most hardened of us. If we were taught this from birth, women would grow up knowing their worth, and then self-love would be a ‘given’. We are a long way from living like this, but each step a woman takes to reclaim her connection with her inner-self helps to break down the intergenerational and societal patterns that are currently so imprisoning.
It’s not about women needing to choose between mothering, work or even other important areas of their lives; it’s about women learning to value and honour themselves, regardless of what roles they’ve chosen and where they are at in life. Part two on this topic speaks more about the impacts of the conundrum women are caught in as mothers and workers and offers reflections for women to consider should they choose to explore this subject further.
"Embracing the reality that has been created, promoted and enforced, and doing so in complete contradiction to our deepest senses that know otherwise, means we have settled for a much lesser world. "Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume III, ed 1,p83