We’re thinking about
—work all wrong


(Or, a blueprint for a good life)

 

by Sara Allen

 

I spend a lot of my time thinking about women and work. About how to enable women to have the careers they want, and fulfil their potential. I do this because I care deeply about each woman I work with, about the frustration they feel at having to press pause on their career. 

And I do this because it’s absolutely clear to me that to achieve social change we need power. And so helping women to progress in work is a no brainer to me.

But here’s the thing. When we talk about work, when we think about our careers, I think we’re almost all guilty of othering ourselves. We’ve absorbed the idea that the norm, the thing to aspire to, is a full-time career. And we describe anything else as a compromise. Part-time, flex, job-sharing, stay-at-home parenting, caring, volunteering – all of the other types and ways of working are somehow less. 

But, it’s not clear to me that we’re right. Because if we could redesign work now, would we really start with spending five-sevenths of our days working? With cramming everything else around it. With feeling frantic and overwhelmed?

Do we really think that is the most fulfilling way to live?

If we could design a blueprint for our lives now, what would it look like? I’m pretty sure we’d include work and time for relationships (romantic and platonic and familial) and caring (parenting, sure, but also caring for people who are vulnerable or unwell) and wellbeing and creativity and meaning (yoga or religion or politics or …)

And do we really think our work outputs are better for sitting in front of a computer screen, having no time for anything else?

I know I get my best ideas on a chilly autumn walk, or looking at a Schiele, or building many, many Lego spaceships.

And I’m better at work when it’s not all I do. I develop skills in other spheres: I learned Photoshop when making a poster for a summer fair. I learned negotiation when parenting a toddler. I learned patience when caring for an elderly relative coping with dementia. And I drew on skills from work to secure more support for that same fragile relative.

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Which is to say not just that our lives are richer for having more in them, but that there is an interplay between the different spheres we operate in – that the skills and knowledge we get in each, help us in others.

What’s really interesting is, give-or-take, this patchwork of roles describes the lives of lots of women I know. We’re not all there, for sure. But funnily enough the place many of us find ourselves now is a lot closer than many of our menfolk. Those whose lives are dominated by that full-time career that we’re supposed to desire, the one we are are in some way failing if we don’t replicate.

It’s a life with economic power, for sure. But it’s not one I aspire to. I want to work, I want to do important work to make the world better. But I also want to spend time with my children – the days I get to pick them up from school are my favourites and I’d not trade them for anything. I want to see my friends and have those amazing, life-giving conversations which make me walk taller for a week, make me more resilient and clear-minded. I want to paint and play poker and read great books. I want time to walk in the park and bake and …

Is it possible the patchwork we’ve created out of a fug of parenting, often out of necessity forced by circumstance and costs of childcare, is a better way of being? Can we turn this knowledge into a position of strength?

And then can we go further? Because the next step is to allow our careers to flourish, unhindered by our desire to work a three-day week. And to enable our menfolk to do the same, so that not just our domestic labour, but also the promise of a richer life, is equally shared.