International Women’s Day, One Day Late

This is one day late, but I wanted to share it. Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I spent the day reflecting on my experience as a woman, and the challenges that I feel women (and men) in our society still face.

I was born in the mid 70s, to hippies who rejected the cultural mainstream. My father wore long hair and a long beard, and worked as a self-trained goldsmith. He made jewelry in the back of our house and sold it out of a room in the front. My mother left her job at a bank to stay home when I was born. In my house the adults chopped wood for heat and held meditation circles, and until I was almost 9 years old nobody held a ‘real’ job.

My parents wanted my sister and me to believe we could be anything we wanted to be. In the late 70s and early 80s it was a popular message, and a lot of TV shows reinforced the idea. There was a common storyline that went like this: a hapless man is looking for ‘Dr. Pat Smith’, only to discover that the woman he assumed was the receptionist is actually the good doctor. Hilarity ensues. We learned not to judge a book by its cover, and that women could be doctors just as well as nurses.

I believed it. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do something based solely on my gender. I think most of us got the message, because you don’t see Dr. Pat Smith on TV anymore. She’s no longer considered noteworthy, although I am tremendously grateful for her example.

In high school I did just as well in math and science as English and French. After high school I attended engineering school, where I was surprised to find that women made up only 20% of the students in my classes. I never felt singled out or discriminated against, but it is hard not to notice when the gender numbers are overwhelmingly skewed against you.

I worked as an engineer, in a male-dominated environment, for 5 years before my daughter was born. I was treated with the same respect as my male colleagues, and I generally liked my job. The work environment was comfortable and I was paid well. We had team-building activities and treats on Wednesdays and flex time. My co-workers’ offices were filled with math textbooks and photos of their children, and there were company-wide policies ensuring that all employees were treated fairly.

Things changed a bit once I was pregnant. People joked that I was leaving them to have a baby. I didn’t laugh. I wondered why my decision to procreate implied that I was abandoning my post, but my male colleagues’ similar decisions did not. I wondered why I was asked if I had to work, and my husband was not.

I used all of the year-long maternity leave available to me. When I returned to work I negotiated a part-time schedule, in an attempt to find some kind of balance. I understood that working less and telecommuting would affect my career trajectory, at least for a time. I was willing to sacrifice some of my professional advancement, though – kids grow quickly and I didn’t want to miss it.

Still, questions nagged at the back of my mind. Why was I naturally the one who worked less (and now only sporadically) once the babies came? Would I be able to recover from my time on the mommy track? How come it was so hard to find quality childcare? And why don’t more fathers take advantage of flexible work policies or parental leave?

Over my lifetime Dr. Pat Smith and I have seen gender roles shift. Pretty much any career path is open to a woman if she chooses to pursue it. In my home housework is evenly distributed, and my husband does nearly all of my laundry. We do our best to approach parenting with gender neutrality. I don’t feel that the balance of power swings one way or the other.

And yet the glass ceiling still exists, especially for mothers. While parental leave is available to most fathers in Canada, only 11% of them use it. It’s still uncommon to for men to work alternative schedules to care for children. Working mothers still sometimes hear statements like, “Why even have kids if you’re not going to raise them?” Women bear the brunt of child-rearing, and face most of the conflict over balancing career and family.

I wish that everyone had better access to family-friendly work policies, and that there wasn’t a stigma for using them. I suspect many men feel the same way. There are dads who would enjoy being at-home parents, or taking one day a week off to volunteer in their kid’s classroom. Our current system does not exactly work perfectly for anyone.

On International Women’s Day I am so grateful for my feminist foremothers, who fought so that I could be an engineer and have access to birth control and maternity leave and daycare. I am grateful to live in a country where my rights are recognized and my standard of living is not significantly diminished because of my gender. But I am reflecting on the work there is still to do. I am considering how I can contribute to creating a world that is more equitable for everyone, which better celebrates diversity and variety in life paths and choices. That is the world that I hope my children and grandchildren will inherit.

PS – This post was a variation of a sermon I delivered in cooperation with two other women. You can hear it at Celebrating Strong Women.

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  1. Another great article!

  2. Happy Belated International Women’s Day Amber! Some things you wrote struck a cord with me, in a positive way of course. It made me think of my choice to have children and the challenges it posed in my career advancement. I truly enjoy working and earning my own money and I’ve worked since I was 14 years old. We grew up with not very much and I always wanted a house for my children to inherit and for them to experience life experiences without having to worry about the cost. I want to have a comfortable retirement, I want to travel…for all these reasons I work. It has not been easy for me and I’ve had to take a few steps back in my career advancement to ensure my children aren’t in daycare 10 hours a day. I quit my commuter job – my whole career at a company and took a job closer to home. I gave up benefits, vacation and my thinkpad so I could be more available to my children, which is what I wanted more than a career. My husband did not have to do this, it was my choice for my family and he supported my decision. My husband grew up in a SAHM environment and we’ve had our conversations with regards to his expectations of me and my role as caregiver. I can get everything done for the children and household daily – as well as work, but I’ve made it clear that the household responsiblities should be split. I gave him a month of my parental leave so he could understand just how challenging it is to stay at home with the kids and that made him appreciate my role even more. 🙂 Men can have parental leave in Canada – if only their wives are willing to give up some of theirs…I don’t think they can run concurrently. Your whole life changes when you add a child to it so setting expectations and communicating with your employer (both mothers and fathers) can make the balance of working and family possible these days, and I’m thankful for that.
    .-= Tanya´s last post ..Expectations of a new mom =-.

  3. You’re so right. I sure don’t know what the answer is — and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I sort of feel that the fact that the baby comes out of the woman does make the roles different. That doesn’t mean I believe women who want a career shouldn’t have one, but I don’t know how to do it without trying for the superwoman role, which I think is very damaging. I guess it’s really all about choices, and everybody should have them, more than they do now.
    .-= allison´s last post ..*******************Books, Babies, Butchery =-.

  4. Yup. I remember sitting in an office chair, pregnant with my first and thinking that I’d probably be glad at the end of my mat leave to come back to work and share the enormous responsibility of raising my kid with a daycare.

    Um… nope.

    Nothing at all in my previous experience prepared me for how urgently I’d feel the need to be at home with my wee kids and how irrelevant everything else would suddenly seem.

    I now understand what men (fathers & coworkers & employers) mean when they say they don’t want to take any of their wive’s parental benefits from them.

    I’m so greatful that there are options for women (though we do have to make sure there are more and better ones to!) and that it’s me who gets to raise them.
    .-= Betsy´s last post ..Happy International Women’s Day – Caution: This is Sappy =-.

  5. I often wondered at the folks who asked me, when I was pregnant “Are you going to go back to work?” and would raise their eyebrows when I said “I have to, I make more money than my husband.” They always assumed I had a choice. I suppose, if you count brass tacks, I did, but in our financial situation, I didn’t really. We needed to stay solvent, and I have the means to do so.

    Yes, there is still a stigma of a Mommy coming back to work, I believe. It is assumed you can’t work overtime, it is assumed you can’t take on more responsibility. It is assumed you will use up your vacation days taking Johnny to the doctor and dentist. You will be passed up for promotions and such because “She has to be home for her kids” or “She can never do that, she has kids to look after”. And if you think I am generalizing, I have heard this, first-hand at places I have worked. I have heard “Oh crap, she’s pregnant? Well we’ll have to re-think that promotion we were going to give her. We all know that a baby won’t make it easy for her to work the hours we need.” Seriously… I don’t work there anymore, for the record.

    So when you don’t fall into those mommy-categories, and work overtime, try to climb the corporate ladder, improve your career goals, and dedicate yourself to your career AS WELL as your family, people don’t know what to do with you! Quelle Horreur! Despite our equality in the workplace, there is still a lot of people who believe being a mom and being a career-woman are two separate things, not to be mixed. Its changing, I know, but slowly.

    I am thankful I have one of those changed workpalces. I have managers who are also family men, and understand what is required, and are empathetic when the day care calls and my son needs me. But, even though I am full time, and so is my husband, I am the one who takes days off to be with my son when he is sick. My husband gets “frowned upon” for taking days to look after his son, so he tries not to, to keep his own career building going (which is going well). His managers (all with SAHM’s who look after the kids, which is great! I don’t disparage the choice at all!)) assume I will take care of it, and he is present to work. One actually asked him, when I was going back to work, why he was “letting” me. *grumble* I really, really hope he was joking.

    I love my job, I love my career choice, and someday, I hope to work from home, and pair it with running a farm and grow and sell organic veggies, herbs, and livestock. But for now, I am here, at my desk, working very hard, for my family. And I hope that someday women will not be viewed any differently in the workplace, whether they are moms or not.
    .-= Caroline´s last post ..Where I’ve Been – Part 7 1/2 =-.

  6. I also grew up in a non-traditional household (for the 70s), my dad was self-employed and raising me and my sister (not even a widower! a divorcee which made it “unnatural” to lots of people). And my mother was one of the first female Deckhands on the BC Ferries fleet, and the first female Oiler on the west coast…. talk about a male world being in a big-boat’s engine room, I’m surprised the supersticious sailors didn’t kick her out. And my grandmothers were also very independent with even one of my great grandmothers being a recognized medical doctor.

    So, my sister and I were never handed any female stereotypes, but had some big female role-model shoes to fill.

    When it came to courses in school I did best in Math and Science and really loved Drafting and Electronics. It didn’t occur to me that they were “boys” classes until I realized that they were in the shop wing of the school. Thankfully I did well in those classes because the teachers kept picking on me being the “girl”. I laugh now when I think about how ridiculous it all was. I didn’t have the sense to be intimidated though!!!

    You are right about having kids. As soon as baby #1 came along, it changed everything. So the maternity ceiling is a real and biological thing for a lot of women. That’s why I work from home (and am very very thankful that I can). There are women that really NEED to work to stay sane too, and there are men that would rather stay home, so when these folks are together it is still harmonious. Maternity leave doesn’t have to mean the end of the career, but it is as significant a speedbump as a serious injury, life changing, priority changing, time monopolizing speedbump.

    Long story short, being a woman in this country is the best!
    .-= *pol´s last post ..I HATE my laundryroom =-.

  7. Brilliant thoughtful post, and a lot of the thoughts therein i’m struggling with right now vis a vis, the automatic assumptions of childcare.
    Sadly, raising a family will always be biased as women’s work until raising that family/maintaining a home is given equal status to and the same recognition as salaried employment. Until this changes, women will always be worse off in terms of status, pay, pension, divorce settlements, poverty, career, medical services ….. the list is depressing and it’s not changing in my lifetime. Unfortunately right now most women do have to choose between children and career, and even though I’m currently a firm believer in not parenting fulltime-by-proxy ie. dual career/fulltime childcare I will fight to make sure that my son’s wife and he can co-parent equally AND still advance in the workplace.
    Sigh! This crap should have been fixed by now – parenting/raising a family is still the lowest of the low in terms of job status in the “modern” world.
    I recommend reading Anne Crittenden’s “The Price of Motehrhood” for a throughly depressing rallying call to arms on behalf of motherhood/women’s rights/family politics.
    .-= pomomama aka ebbandflo´s last post’s end =-.

  8. I always thought I’d be a man-like bread winner type. But since I graduated I’ve worked almost exclusively in non-profit, female-centred environments. My husband makes more money than me so I took the leave. But l feel sad that it’s just me at home. My husband is such an amazing Dad and I know he’d prefer to be here. Baby Theo is now more bonded to me than his Dad, something that we know will abate but hurts my husband. Luckily, he’s a teacher so soon he’ll have an entire summer to hang out with baby!

    Still our future work plans, day care, etc… are completely vague at this point. And pretty soon my EI well will run dry. I guess we’ll figure something out…

  9. Great post, thanks for sharing!
    .-= Earth Muffin´s last post ..A decade of Big M. =-.

  10. Fabulous post, Amber! I really enjoyed reading it as well as all the comments.
    I have 2 daughters and pity anyone who tries to tell them can’t go where their heart swill lead them!
    .-= annica´s last post ..Food Culture vs Real Food =-.

  11. Michelle says:

    I love being a mom. I love that I spent almost two years filling my son’s every void. But after Christmas he went to daycare…

    I ended up in a position that I couldn’t argue with – in bed sick. While my “mom” friends enjoyed their mat leaves and grudgingly went back to work, they were all gushing over my “luck” at staying home.

    In these past two years, I’ve learned more recently that I need a hysterectomy, after facing daily pain, the stress of being a stay at home parent and even MORE recently – the end of my marriage.

    Children change the landscape of our lives, and for me it was a positive change. I am broken, in both the physical and financial sense, if not emotionally by proxy. But yet, I am free. I have been steadfast and sent my son to daycare. A wonderful facility, hand picked, for which I not only pay dearly, but had to wait on a list!

    I hate taking him. He cries every day, pressing his dear little face against the glass in a plea for me to stay – for while he loves the toys, activity and friends, he refuses to drink or eat while I am gone. This is good for him – building essential life skills, but I wish I could just keep him with me entirely. My newly single status cements my need to re-enter the work force!

    I never understood what being a mother meant, and how I would want to be with them constantly – I assumed that I would get bored and want to return.

    What no one has mentioned here are a few women who are not meant for the mothering life. A woman I worked with dutifully gave birth to her children and stayed at home with them, and I’m certain she loved them. But she was chafing at the proverbial bit, she couldn’t wait to come back, she loves them but would go bananas if she stayed with them a minute more.

    The women who wouldn’t mind being married to their jobs. The children an afterthought – the culmination of the upper-middle-class goal.

    For me, my son is my world. I love him totally and without reservation. And I hate every morning, and the first 15 seconds that I see him again, is the best moment of my LIFE. The huge smile, running to meet me, climbing me and trying to hug and kiss me with that food-encrusted-snotty mouth is my idea of heaven!

  12. I am so grateful for those that went before us and tried to smooth out those gender lines.

    Just like you I did well in math and science as well as english and history. For reasons unknown to me, I chose the male-dominated career of surveying. The gender line is still very much present in the blue-collar world of construction and trades. I lasted 6 months in the field as a surveyor and 6 more months in the office world of a surveyor before I quit that industry entirely. In fact, I only know of one woman who I went to school with who is still a surveyor. My husband still works in that world and I can tell you that 13 years later that gender line is still hard and fast. Women work reception or control traffic, unless they are tough and can handle the blatant sexual comments tossed their way daily. I was called names that I thought only existed in movies.

    So I guess my point is that while HUGE steps forward were achieved by all those brave individuals, there’s still some things that need to improve – for men and women.
    .-= Marilyn @ A Lot of Loves´s last post ..Scar-face =-.

  13. I wish we could both stay home! At the same time. Until then we will continue to take turns using care and nurturing leave offered by our employer.

    Before kids we had talked about the husband staying home with our kids until they were in school because I was the one that was more focused on my career. And then they were both here and I didn’t want to do that anymore. So I am having my turn at home and then he will have his. To be honest, I wish the division of childcare wasn’t quite so even between us because I am going to miss the kids when I go back to work.
    .-= Capital Mom´s last post ..Maybe =-.

  14. When my first son was born, my husband did more of the hands-on childcare than I did. We had jokingly made a “deal” that I took care of the pregnancy, and he would take care of everything else. When someone needed to get home early or take care of a sick boy, he was the one who did it. After I got used to the idea of being a mom and loved it, we’re pretty much 50-50 on childcare. To truly share the child raising, you first need to *want* to share and both really commit to it. It doesn’t suit everyone, but it works for us.
    .-= Lady M´s last post ..We’re Rich! =-.

  15. Very thought provoking post. So true that the glass ceiling does exist – and especially for mothers. That is the tricky part isn’t it, at least for me it was, that I was the one that automatically put my career on hold. Not that I didn’t want to or that I wasn’t okay with it…just that it was assumed from every angle.

    Your story about Dr Pat reminded me of a tour I took with my elementary school of the local hospital when I was in fifth grade. (think white, middle class, small rural town) At the end of the tour the boys got doctor surgeon masks and the girls got nurses hats. I was pissed. I wanted a mask and a few other girls did too so we asked to switch. I don’t remember it being a big deal and we did get the Dr masks but I still think about how it was so assumed that “boys are doctors and girls are nurses”. I don’t think it would be that way on a tour these days.

    And suddenly I feel old. LOL!
    .-= AmberDusick´s last post ..Making Mistakes…and LOVING it! =-.

  16. What an interesting post Amber, and so many interesting comments. My experience as a woman in this country, and in Europe really, has very little in common from what I read above.
    .-= Francesca´s last post ..Corner View ~ miniature worlds =-.

  17. It is crazy to hear the kinds of questions people ask when they find out you’re pregnant. But you do point out issues that we CAN change. And what better way to try and make a change by raising awareness through our kids and THEIR future.
    I think about this often and am so grateful I have an opportunity to raise a son and teach him about things like this.
    .-= Sara´s last post ..Out to Lunch—March =-.

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  1. […] first met my friend Marcy at church almost 10 years ago. In face we once delivered a sermon together in honour of International Women’s Day (if you listen to the recording at the end of the post […]

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