Sometimes, when women are publicly celebrated for their work, an unsuspecting reporter can have a specific question gushing out of his throat. That brilliant achievement this woman just pulled off, that fine work she produced, or that record-breaking achievement she deserved: How did she find the time for it while “juggling” her family? An eyebrow might rise and her smile might falter. Then comes the answer: You wouldn’t ask a man that question, would you?
No, I wouldn’t, because I wouldn’t care how a man could do it. It’s now common knowledge that having a family doesn’t have a significant impact on a man’s career or income, especially when compared to the astronomical impact that the same life choice can have on a woman. I would never ask a man how he has balanced his career with his family life because I probably wouldn’t think what he creates is that impressive.
But a woman is different. ‘Maternity penalty’, the phenomenon whereby a woman’s income tends to lag behind that of her male partner after they have children together, is well researched and understood. It is incredibly common for the years when a woman has the greatest opportunity for improved income or career success to coincide with the years when the demands of family life are at their most intense.
In its 2021 report on the extent of the gender pay gap in Ireland, the Nevin Economic Research Institute found that while households with children tended to earn more than those without, the gender pay gap between mothers and their partners was larger than between women and men in general. While women without children tend to earn 3.3 percent less than men, women with one to three children earn up to 12 percent less “than men in the same households”. “This gender pay gap between men and women in households with children confirms the results of maternity punishment for women found in previous research,” the Nevin Institute said.
So when I see a mother manage to keep a brilliant, challenging and well-paying job, the first thing I instinctively ask myself is how. Not because I hate the idea of women fleeing the home, but because I’m dying to find out if there’s a secret answer to the question that’s not just “money.”
Last week I read an interview with veteran TV presenter Claire Byrne, in which she detailed, with refreshing frankness, how she was forced to give up her current television program because it seemed to be having an impact on her family life that was neither fair nor sustainable . Although Byrne was a consummate professional in her responses, I was shocked to learn through the interview of the apparent lack of effort on the part of RTÉ to try to get his schedule working for one of his most prominent female presenters.
If, at the peak of Byrne’s career, women have to make professional sacrifices because the world of work is still so decidedly incompatible with motherhood, then I think we should talk about it. Asking moms how they managed to make things work isn’t an implicit affirmation of the status quo.
To say that we can’t ask moms how they find their time just because we wouldn’t ask dads that question makes it seem like the challenges facing working moms and dads are the same. We all know they are not. I think we would learn a lot from the women’s responses if we were allowed to ask that ‘forbidden’ question. Especially if my suspicions turn out to be correct; that many mothers can mostly only make it through access to resources that many women do not have. Whether that means having the finances that allow access to a nanny and cleaner, or the luxury of living close to a supportive family.
Or perhaps full equality between heterosexual parents is still too elusive to achieve, and the mother’s gains can only come from the economic or professional loss of a father. Whatever the secret, I’d really like to be a part of it. I think forbidding us from asking moms how to make it work only serves to erase the extraordinary achievements of hard-working women by pretending the barriers they’ve heaved themselves over even exist does not exist.
To ask about overcoming the maternity sentence is at least acknowledging that it exists. Unfortunately, all that comes out of pretending it doesn’t exist is making sure it continues to exist.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/how-are-some-mothers-maintaining-brilliant-demanding-and-well-paid-jobs-is-there-a-secret-answer-that-isnt-just-money-41968877.html How do some mothers get brilliant, challenging, well-paying jobs? Is there a secret answer that isn’t just “money”?