Published in Jan-Feb 2022
Looking back at the past decade, I know the only reason I have been able to work a nine to five job in advertising with a razor-sharp focus is my iron-clad support system and the means to keep it well-oiled and functioning.
I have spent limitless hours on finding, hiring and training the right help, have co-parented with a husband who happily pitched in on half our collective duties, flown in my parents when I needed to travel for longer spells, lived in a joint family system that was always ready to tie up any loose ends, worked at companies that gave me daycare space so I could be close to the kids and flexi hours for pick-ups, drop-offs, playdates (and the occasional unrelenting tantrum).
Yet, on some days it wasn’t enough. The mental load to keep the support system functioning was mine and mine alone. Make sure the nanny isn’t burnt out. Keep an eye on balancing duties with the husband. Are the parents too tired? Have I taken a favour too many from the in-laws? Am I meeting my workplace halfway? Should I pick up extra work to return the favour? I recognise my support system reeks of privilege – and if building and maintaining one for someone who comes from a place of privilege is this hard, what does it look like for the rest of us?
When it comes to the decision to work outside the house, women often find themselves faced with several burning questions. Of course, one size does not fit all; these questions may come from external sources or be part of an internal dialogue but the thing to note is, even privilege doesn’t do away with all of them.
For the woman who doesn’t have her own means of transport, how does she get to her place of work? For one who needs ‘permission’ to stay out late, will she be able to pull off an all-nighter? For the one who has children, who will watch the kids or get their homework done? There are countless others: who will fill in the gap for home chores? From cooking to cleaning to ironing, to taking care of the house or the elderly, who will do all that, if not her?
The question to ask is, why only her? And why not also him? Why not both? The words in italics change this narrative from a ‘him versus her’ to ‘him for her’ and vice versa. So how do we begin to shake up the bindings of a social dynamic that makes it so difficult for women to work? Here is the way forward in my opinion.
1. Male Allyship
We are going to get nowhere with a men versus women narrative. If this is going to work, we need to join hands with people with similar mindsets, regardless of gender. Along with a platoon of women who form the backbone of our support, we need supportive fathers, brothers, husbands and male heads of companies to recognise their socially-inherited ‘comfort zone’ and dish out some of their privileges to balance the equation. From pitching in to getting home chores done, to taking care of the kids, to placing female-friendly policies in the workplace, we can ensure that the ease with which a man can step out of his place for work every day is the same that the woman enjoys too.
2. Support Systems at Work
Allowance: You will do a double-take when I say I am glad the pandemic happened, but hear me out – it’s only because it helped prove what I have long advocated: the flexibility to WFH. The world now knows remote working is possible and is more efficient (when you have hired responsible employees; take it up with your HR if it’s anything but). It is a blessing in disguise for mothers who can skip the useless commute time and use it in more wholesome ways or for women who cannot work late for safety reasons.
Daycare: If only companies would realise that this ask is nothing elaborate. Just a single room with basic amenities. From a personal standpoint, all it took was an abandoned 8 x 8 egg room that no one used at the office for me to keep working after I had my first child. Instead of being a ‘waste of space’ or ‘money’, an incentive like this improves employee retention and proves beneficial to the company by saving time and resources otherwise spent on training new employees. Having experienced it first-hand, when given this provision, women come back and stay on out of loyalty. (Fortunately, childcare is still affordable in this part of the world and profession, so hiring a nanny becomes an investment for the woman and her career, and providing the space becomes the company’s responsibility.)
Maternity/Paternity Policies: Here is a funny story. When I returned to work after my maternity leave, I was obliviously asked by a male colleague if it was possible to take two mat leaves in a year. Petrified by the idea (the sleepless nights and the exhaustion came back in a flash of pain), I told him ‘biologically, yes.’ He almost looked envious. I spent the next pumping session at work horrified at how my mat leave and child-rearing was taken as a leave of leisure. (And anyone thinking I was pumping on company time – I never took a lunch break that year.) But I digress. A bill was recently passed by the Senate stating six-month maternity leave and three-month paternity leave, and lo and behold, instead of celebrating this as a step in the right direction, we have people calculating the number of children women will end up having to avoid work, not realising that child-rearing is a lot of work. Trust me, women will NOT game a system that gives them the freedom to choose to work. Also, the men who stay home for the first three months, would, for a change, learn how much work goes into looking after a newborn and refrain from making uninformed comments like the above. (Apologies for the generalisation, yes #notallmen but #mostmen.)
Transport: Companies should arrange a carpool system with a service charge that could be deducted from the monthly income of the employee. No rocket science, no real investment, just an easy win in the form of a loyal female employee base.
To conclude, men are born with a silver spoon that holds within it a pre-programmed support system and an entire village supporting their ability to work free of social bindings or subconscious insecurities. And in a world where we talk about equality and progress, we know it’s time to share the coveted silver spoon with women too. (Feel free to use the above points as a beginner’s checklist – you are welcome.)
Hira Mohibullah is an executive creative director.