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 couldnâ€™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 didnâ€™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 didnâ€™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 donâ€™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 Womenâ€™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.