Society’s fixed gender roles are not only contributing to a stubborn gender pay gap, they are robbing couples and single women of greater freedom and earning power – and men of improved health and wellbeing.
By: Kutlwano Sello
Every year, Women’s Day rolls around, and every year the same topics have a moment in the spotlight: gender-based violence (GBV), the gender pay gap, and the progress women are making in the endless pursuit of ‘having it all’ while trying to balance career and family life. These are conversations we need to be having more often. President Cyril Ramaphosa recently called GBV South Africa’s “second pandemic”, while in the world of work, women still earn up to 35 percent less than men for the same job.
Another part of the problem is the narrow definition of ‘having it all’. What’s meant to be empowering for women is actually steeped in patriarchal notions that a woman’s role is to have and nurture children (and sure, you can work too, if you like). Here’s a 2020 newsflash: not all women want or can have children. Having it all can mean financial freedom, it can mean staying single and child-free or finding the perfect work-life balance. It should mean whatever any individual woman wants it to mean.
Alternating careers makes better financial sense
For those women juggling careers and families, ‘having it all’ has often meant doing it all. And the pressures from both sides mean many feel guilty they’re doing neither job as well as they’d like.
The double burden of responsibility is a well-documented reason for the stubbornly persistent gender pay gap. What’s less talked about, or known, is that traditional patriarchal family structures – where women’s careers take a backseat – don’t actually make sense from a financial point of view. Having one person as the main breadwinner limits a couple’s full earning potential and creates dependence on one career; a risky strategy in a volatile jobs market.
According to Abu Addae, co-founder and CEO of LifeCheq, a much better option is an alternating career strategy, where each partner takes turns focusing on their career and being the homemaker – switching it up every few years. He has male colleagues who’ve chosen this more unconventional path in recent years and, unsurprisingly, he’s run the numbers.
“Couples who share home and work roles more equally can earn 50 percent more over the course of their lifetimes, compared with couples where the man is the sole or main breadwinner. The simple reason is that there is a lot of upside for the woman’s career capital in an alternating strategy. In other words, the little bit the man loses is far offset by what the woman gains in terms of her income. From a cold, hard financial point of view, patriarchy doesn’t pay.”
Research from the last few years suggests more South African women are taking up the sole breadwinner role. While this is great for advancing women’s careers and a challenge to patriarchal values, a more equal sharing of the load still makes better financial sense. (If you’re wondering where this leaves single working moms, Addae’s calculations indicate, somewhat surprisingly, that they usually end up better off financially than coupled up women who rely on their partners’ incomes.)
Men have as much to gain as women
Patriarchal values aren’t just holding women back, they’re damaging men too. Iceland has been ranked number one in the world for gender equality by the World Economic Forum for more than a decade. You might think this spells a worse deal for men, but in fact, Icelandic men enjoy the highest life expectancy in Europe. The trend holds true in other countries where men and women enjoy greater equality. There are real upsides to men spending more time as caregivers – and not just for their partners or children. More men recognising these wellbeing and financial gains would do a lot to reduce the gender pay gap.
For alternating career strategies to become normalised, companies need to do more to support and enable the role of men as homemakers. A deeper question is whether society as a whole is ready to shift entrenched gender expectations. Statistics on shared parental leave suggest we have some way to go. Japan, for example, has the most generous shared parental leave allowance in the world, at 30 weeks of paid leave for fathers. Only 1 in 20 men actually use it. Policy changes alone won’t be enough.
If we want true equality for women, at work and at home, we need men to step back in the workplace and to step forward as partners, husbands and fathers. As women, we also need to value our careers more, even if we do want a family. The patriarchal values we’ve inherited from previous generations no longer serve us in this day and age. This is not something men should fear, but embrace.
Kutlwano Sello is the Content and Community Manager at LifeCheq, a career and life planning company helping South African professionals and business owners plot the path to success.