Flexible Work and Gender Inequities in Work and Care – Let’s Fix the Incentives!

As Australian society shifts towards a service driven economy, the nature of work is changing, and with it, the balance of work and family life.

Our late modern economy is characterised by more targeted consumption of niche (rather than standardized mass produced) goods, and consequently by more flexible production. Workers, contractors and entrepreneurs are moving away from the 9 to 5, 5 day week routine towards more casual, part-time, contract work at all hours in a 24-7 economy. And they are producing these services in increasingly de-centralised workplaces, working in cafes rather than offices, and working from home in greater numbers than ever before. All of this is, of course, facilitated by the rise of the digital economy and online social networking, blurring the boundaries between private friendship and public business in a way that would put Amway to shame! There has seemingly never been a better, and easier time to start a business and work for ourselves, and the flexibility inherent in such arrangements should enable workers to better balance work and family life.

However, there is conjecture and evidence that structuring our modern working lives this way is having a severe impact on our family lives and connections. It is important to acknowledge that the ‘flexibility’ in our arrangements is often imposed upon us by bosses and the market, rather than chosen by us in a way that suits us and our family lives. Richard Sennett argues that work today is increasingly temporary and fractious, requiring that we commute to a multiplicity of locations (local, metropolitan, interstate, international), work all sorts of hours (including shiftwork), and live with an increasing precarity that disrupts our family lives and relationships.

The impacts of these changes fall disproportionately upon women. Women’s increasing movement into the workforce – rightly celebrated as emancipatory – has now become a necessity to pay the exorbitant cost of skyrocketing mortgages and rents in the never-ending Australian house price boom. Women are more likely to work multiple jobs, single mothers are moving into work in ever-greater number (thanks to recent changes in welfare payments), and yet they are still under-represented in senior business and management roles and suffer a gender wage gap of approximately $27,000 a year.

In tandem with these inequities, the greater burden of unpaid work and childcare still falls on women. Women spend more hours working in every type of unpaid labour than men (except for gardening and outdoor tasks), and do more unpaid work even when they are the main breadwinner in a household.

These trends suggest that while a more flexible economy and work practices open up new opportunities for business and friendly working arrangement, there is need to redress structural problems that make these arrangements work against – rather than for – many of us. Addressing gender inequities in paid and unpaid work is paramount, and this involves not only a culture shift amongst men, but removing the incentives to keep men in paid work to a greater degree than women – close the Gender Wage Gap, and improve the system of paid parental leave to encourage equal take-up by men. As a start – let’s fix the incentives!

#S208UOW17 #Tut6

Boy, Girl, Straight, Gay … Starved, Groomed, Altered?

How do you know if you’re a boy or girl, straight or gay, or something else altogether? Is it just obvious biology, something you’ve always known instinctively? Or is it something you’ve learned? What about your sexuality? Or what about your image of yourself as a sexual person?

While conventional perspectives focus on a hetero-normative image of men and women accompanied by prescribed male and female behaviours, and other perspectives gave range to a number of alternative conceptions – gay, lesbian, queer, transgender etc – the origins and repercussions of our sex, gender and sexuality are contested.

Some say that sexuality is fluid and eroticism is plastic, changing over the life course and in different contexts. Others point out that ‘obvious biological’ parts of our existence – our bodies – are increasingly altered to confirm to socially derived gendered stereotypes. Many women continue to alter themselves in ways ranging ‘beach ready body dieting to labiaplasty in pursuit of the perfect female form. Similarly, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and sales of protein enhancement and grooming products are steadily increasing amongst men.

What do you think? How much of our sex, gender and sexuality is innate and biological, and how much is environmental and social?

#S327UOW17 #Tut4

Are we happy yet?

Who doesn’t want to be happy? The last few decades have seen a great rise in the pursuit of happiness. Not the Aristotelian pursuit of a virtuous, well rounded emotional life, nor the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness through liberty as an ‘inalienable right’, nor even the Utilitarian pursuit of happiness as the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. Rather, there has been a surge of interest in measuring and planning for the happiness of nations. The OECD now tracks wellbeing measures across countries, Bhutan has pioneered in interest in Gross National Happiness (GNH) over GDP as a measure of societal progress, and the UK is interested in finding ‘happy places’ by measuring wellbeing and happiness by geographic location. Happiness is clearly now an important measure of social progress.

And yet happiness is still largely individualised as an emotion. Despite studies by world happiness experts like Ruut Veenhoven showing that happiness is clearly linked to social structural conditions in that it varies substantially across rich, poor and unequal nations, the treatments for happiness are still largely individualised. Medication and therapy – including mass therapy, or a societal/national foci on promoting mindfulness, positive psychology and CBT – are put forward as the means for resolving unhappiness, even when changes in economic and work conditions, family, gender, ethnic, and age structures, and urban and social connection may be the primary culprits in causing unhappiness. Can the proliferation of lists on how to be happy in 5, 7, 13, or 25 ‘science-backed’ easy (and obviously non-contradictory …) steps really compensate for broader social change?

And what about other emotions? How much of our unhappiness is about rising anxiety, depression, stress and anger? How much of our happiness depends on peace, contentment and love? And how much does our happiness – in all its related emotional forms – depend on what we are doing, rather than how we might sum up our lives on a 0 to 10 scale of satisfaction? In previous research, my colleague Kimberly Fisher and I found (unexpectedly) that Americans would enjoy their time less if they lived like Australians, because they would spend more time doing unpleasant things like housework, and less time doing fun things like having people over for dinner. We also found that the GFC seemed to have the effect of helping Americans re-evaluate the quality of their time, and enjoy the grind of work less and the pleasantness of social and family time more. Clearly, reflecting on and adjusting the social circumstances and lives that make us happy is an important element of our actual happiness. Mary Holmes calls this emotional reflexivity, or “an embodied, cognitive and relational process in which social actors have feelings about and try to understand and alter their lives in relation to their social and natural environment and to others.”

I say – as I always do with regards to all matters sociological – that structure and agency go hand in hand in the consideration of our happiness. We can change the world – and we can change ourselves – one emotion at a time, with reflection and awareness. I say that we need to be reflexive about what makes us happy (how society affects us), what makes others happy (how we affect society), if there are contradictions and inequalities in happiness, and when it is appropriate to beshow, or change our happiness, unhappiness, or other emotions – rather than assuming we should always try and be simply happy as a default for living. If we can do these things, I think we can start to really understand what it means to be happy in today’s society, and to understand and build truly happy societies.

What do you think?

#S327UOW16 #Tut12

Lonely Women and … Lonely Men?

An article by Jean Hannah Edelstein featured in the Sydney Morning Herald today opens with the line ‘Loneliness kills’. She is referring primarily to women. Edelstein draws on literature compiled by Judith Shulevitz in the New Republic, and suggests that women experience loneliness more deeply than men.

Edelstien then goes on to discuss the implications and the strategies many women undertake to ensure that they don’t lead lonely lives. She reflects on how important it is for women to have friends, a supportive community, a life partner, and love.

Central to her argument is the belief that women (unlike men) draw much of their sense of personal self-worth and value from the relationships in their lives, and it is the loss of these supportive and affirming relations that induces the worst experiences of severe loneliness.

Some might take this as somewhat disempowering of women. It might be interpreted as saying that women’s happiness depends on others, whereas men can derive satisfaction from some innate sense of confidence and self-worth associated with their achievements at work, sport, civic life, just being a man etc.

I would suggest, however, that where loneliness is concerned, humanity trumps gender. The need for human connection vaunted by Edelstein is as prevalent amongst men as women. This is, in fact, the line taken in most of Schulevitz’s article. Loneliness is associated with a host of not only mental but also physical illnesses, for men as much as women. There is no gender distinction made in the literature she reviews; Schulevitz in fact makes only the briefest mention of gender in her article, noting that ‘studies’ (unreferenced, and from unspecified countries and times) suggest that women are lonelier than men, with the exception of single women and men.

In Australia, this is not the case. Analysis of the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes by Adrian Franklin from the University of Tasmania shows that men endure loneliness as a serious problem for longer periods than women, are less able to deal with loneliness, and that loneliness is particularly serious amongst separated men.

My own work analyzing various Australian national surveys shows that older men report less social support and social contact, while separated men experience less social support, are less likely to have friends to confide in, and feel less likely to have say in family members compared to partnered men, and either partnered or separated women.

Australian men also spend less time in social contact with friends and family outside the household, and it is time-pressured, partnered fathers who spend the least time in this activity.

It is possible that men simply prefer less social contact, and that this doesn’t translate to more loneliness. However, a unique survey run by the Social Policy Research Centre asked Australians not only whether they lacked social contact, but also whether they thought social contact was ‘essential’ for most Australians. Analysis of this survey shows that Australian men were less likely to have social contact that even they themselves said was ‘essential’.

The upshot of all this is that, in Australia at least, while women might experience the feeling of loneliness more deeply then men, men experience the consequences of loneliness more often than women in terms of reduced contact and isolation. This is the classic distinction made by MIT’s Robert Weiss between ‘social’ and ‘emotional’ loneliness – men experience it even if they do not always show that they are feeling lonely.

A final issue is that Edelstien’s claim on the deeper experience of women’s loneliness may also reflect cultural and gender differences in the expression of emotions such as loneliness. Men may just not feel comfortable showing their loneliness, and may feel bound by social rules preventing them seeking our social contact, support and friendship in the same way as women. The evidence showing greater lack of social connection and social loneliness amongst Australian males is clear and disconcerting, and shows that the loneliness question is not confined to one gender.

Loneliness kills men and women alike.