A Little Girl’s View on Women Who Work

“Because dads have harder jobs than mums,” announced my seven-year-old, stopping me in my tracks, as we pulled into the playground.

She was chatting about summer and playdates and conversations she’d been having with friends in school about seeing each other over the holidays. She’d worked out that one of her friends might be around, because her mum would probably take some time off.

“Well, I think she will be there, because it’s easier for her mum to take holidays – you know, because dads have harder jobs than mums.”

I looked at her in the rearview mirror.

“What do you mean?”

She backtracked. “Oh, I mean dads do things like lighting fires, and mums just eh… do the washing up,” she said. I should add that we have a (mostly unused) gas fire, so as digging oneself out of a hole goes, this was pretty dismal.

“Ah OK,” I said. “But you said jobs, not housework – did you mean jobs as in going to work?”

“Yes,” she admitted. “Well, I mean it must be easier, because mums take more days off, especially in summer. I think that even though dads really love their kids, they know that both parents can’t take time off work at the same time or there wouldn’t be enough money. So mums take holidays and dads go to work. That’s what I mean. So it’s a bit easier for the mums.”

Clara - office mum

And really, I couldn’t fault her logic. She’s seven years old, and that’s her view of the world. In a way, she just paraphrased what employers or society as a whole might say on the subject. As women, we look to spend more time with our kids, to find a balance between work and family, and this is  perceived as lack of ambition or lack of interest. Women are still seen as responsible for child rearing, and many are still having to choose from an all-or-nothing menu of options when it comes to career and family.

To put this in context, until recently, and since she was six months old, my daughter saw me go out to work every day. I worked full-time until she was four-year-old, and then went to a four-day week. Most of her friends’ mothers work. About three-quarters of the mums from the class in school work. Most of my friends work.

I’ve had the “girls can do any job they want!” conversation with her many times and she herself wants to be a “business woman” – she once asked me if men could be business men like women can.

So she’s growing up in a world where mothers go out to work, yet she clearly sees a difference – she doesn’t see the work we do as having the same importance as the work that men are doing. And it’s because we’re not at work as often – it’s because we’re finding smart ways to be at home.

If this is how a child sees it, despite the context, it’s not surprising that we’re still swimming against the tide.

Without paid paternity leave, without shared, paid parental leave, and without employer support for (and normalisation of) men seeking flex work, women will continue to be seen as responsible for rearing children, and men will continue to work full-time.

And realistically, even if men taking leave is normalised, there will always be more women at home – and that’s fine. I know that in my house, if both of us had the option to work a four-day-week, but financially only one of us could, it would be me – because I’d desperately want to, and because my husband is kind, and because I’d win the argument.

But we need more choice, and we need to shift the balance.

“That’s a good point, but you know that mums’ jobs are just as hard as dads’ jobs, don’t you? And that girls can do any job they want?” I said to my daughter.

She nodded agreement, and we walked into the playground, to join dozens of other kids – and their mothers. Only mothers.

women in the workplace - office mum

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For details on our bottom-of-the-table record on paid parental leave and flex working, see Family Leave Policy: A Chance for Change

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8 thoughts on “A Little Girl’s View on Women Who Work”

  1. I read this while walking and literally stopped to concentrate. It is amazing how children pick up in things. With my children it is similar. My husband works in HR as a regular employee. I am a project manager in a telecommunications company. One day last year my son told his friend “my Papa’s hob is to tell other people what to do and my mammy repairs telephones”. I was livid. Even though I travel for work, hold telephone conferences from the kitchen table, etc . they think Papa works harder because he comes home later and works on Fridays. And this is in a situation where my husband has taken parental leave and is entitled to time of when the children are sick.
    As long as we mothers want to spend time with our children I don’t see any way to get the message across that we are working as hard if not harder than fathers.
    Fionnuala recently posted…This Week I’ve Loved #1 – Filming with Number TwoMy Profile

    1. Oh dear!! I wonder if it’s partly due to their ability to understand what the jobs actually are? My husband and I work(ed) in the same industry and the kids have no idea what “funds” or “financial services” means. Once they asked me why I didn’t have a “real” job, like working in a shop or a restaurant.
      It’ll be interesting to see how they view the world when they’re older!

  2. My tummy sank when I read your daughter’s assessment. I’ve tried to debate this with my husband, Mum, colleagues and even my 6 year old son but the reality seems to be that Daddies’ work is higher in the ‘do not disturb’ pecking order. I feel like I should be showing my internal stress levels more and talking about ‘critical’ meetings and ‘immovable’ deadlines. I’m even having the argument with myself in an attempt to work out how it came to this! The last straw was when Patrick asked me did Daddy need to show me how to drive his new car. I was the one who taught Daddy how to drive in college!!!! It sounded petty even as I was saying it. (And I don’t think he believed me anyway…)
    Sigh. I wonder what your Nana Fitzgerald would say?

    1. Liz, so lovely to hear from you! Even if it is under the unfortunate circumstances of our kids’ underestimation of our work 🙂
      Perhaps it’s because we do so much as well as working that they think we’re more present and therefore less busy… which would mean that even for full-time working mums who take no more time off than their partners, kids still see them differently?
      I have to laugh about the learning to drive – that’s brilliant!

  3. I love their comment about working in a shop being a job or restaurant being a ‘real’ job, because it is! As real as most others, and it’s an indicator that they understand there is toil involved. I think the sinking heart is understandable, but I’d imagine their comprehension of paid work at this age is also bound up in which parent is around more, how plain and visible work is, and how they process the effort involved in the parenting of the one who is around them most. An impossible one at that age. Enjoy your summer together.

  4. This really struck a cord with me after a recent conversation with my 5 year old son. I’m fortunate to work from home and also work part time. So 80% of my working life is actually spent at home. We were chatting about what my son wanted to be when he grew up. He wants to ‘write computer stuff like Daddy’ while apparently his younger sister will stay at home ‘because that’s what mums do’. We then had a long conversation about the fact that when I’m at home at my desk, I’m still working, just like Daddy. My son looked very surprised!

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