7 November 2014

Towards a Feminist Viewpoint via Motherhood

There is much preparatory learning required around understanding what a PhD is, what it should do for the subject area, institution, sponsors and for you, before you actually start writing it. Early on, one of the academics at Heriot-Watt said to my new PhD cohort, “The only problem you are solving is that of how to do a PhD” and that sums it up well, only that is the umbrella problem, with lots of little issues hanging off it. One issue to resolve – an example of the academic-in-training experience – is learning what sort of researcher you are before you storm in, regardless of any awareness of your own overt or hidden bias, and understanding the approach your subject matter requires.

Developing an understanding of social research philosophies, in order to establish and be able to develop and justify my own methodological approach to my research, is a heavy-going task. The weekly social research workshops I’ve been attending have been about ontology and epistemology, the nature of reality and approaches to investigating it. While I’m not sure I know much about anything anymore, I do need to decide which philosophies will inform my approach to my research. If I can draw some conclusions about the type of theorist I am going to be, I can move forward with more confidence in my research planning.

There are numerous philosophical positions in the field of management research. In our workshops we have discussed researcher bias and this is what I am going to need to be careful about, realising what I now realise about myself. My conclusions so far are that my bias leads me towards feminism while my subject matter requires investigation using an interpretivist approach. This sits alongside my ontological position of relativism. More on how interpretivism and relativism will suit and shape my research in later posts, after this evaluation of my feminist slant and why I need to acknowledge and reflect on this bias.

My research topic is gender and modern apprenticeships. Feminist research does not have to be on gender and not all gender research is feminist, but what a feminist approach allows for is acknowledgement of gender and sensitivity to other discriminatory barriers. In my field of research discriminatory practice directly influences career choice. This broader sensitivity to discrimination is key: if one area of discrimination is dealt with within an organisation (while it doesn’t always follow) it is more likely that other areas of discrimination will also be dealt with. This is why, when delivering career guidance/ jobseeking sessions, I often direct clients to the Stonewall guide to gay friendly employers  (although on reflection this also demonstrates my bias towards reducing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation). This is my rational, outward looking reason for being drawn towards feminism.

There is a deeper rooted, personal reason why I am being drawn to feminism though; this is the bias I need to limit. It would be fair to say that I find life harder to negotiate since having a child. I wouldn’t have said my earlier career choices were affected by my gender therefore I didn’t need to be much of a feminist. I felt my career choices were more affected by being an only child (a research project for once I have my doctorate). Maybe I had an equal enough journey through my career field to date, mixed with blinkered eyes and naivety, but I didn’t want to have to be a feminist. I didn’t mind being a disability rights campaigner or wanting equal treatment for everyone regardless of sexual orientation based on the experiences of close friends, but when it was me, well that was different. Maybe this is why my research topic appealed to me. I thought I was detached from the major themes. I was wrong.

A year ago, I was a woman with an established career, planning to take just a few months off to have a baby. How simple that sounds! How minimally disruptive to my life! I took nine months in the end, and came back as a mother with a different, re-evaluated career path and career plan for the next five years. I had a primarily work from home job that had been sculpted to work around a child. I wanted a flexible career that enabled me to spend as much time as possible with my son; I’d planned ahead. While I wouldn’t be treading water while he was young, major career progression wasn’t likely but I was happy with that; I liked my job. Then something else came up: a PhD opportunity. I gathered opinions not on whether I could do it academically (there was however agreement across the board that I could) but on whether I could do it with a young child. The answer was yes, and that it’d be a good time to do it. The PhD ticked the same boxes as my job, with a few more for good measure.

A PhD fits well around a young family. A recent Guardian Online call for images about PhD study included several parenting-meets-PhD images  – there are a good few teddy bears in there. One of my closest friends, by unexpected coincidence, a single parent with two primary school age sons, has also just stared a PhD. So why has it been so hard?

I’ve gone from being the higher earner in a partnership, to a full-time student on a bursary, with primary childcare responsibility and a part-time job and because of circumstance we’ve had to manage the first term without any childcare support. And a home doesn’t make itself, however fairly the tasks are split. But that doesn’t, on the surface, explain it. That isn’t in itself a gendered reason.

In some ways it is about managing change. Much has changed in the past twelve months; work, child, family, home – but this is not the change I am talking about. Amongst female friends who’ve had children in recent years I see patterns: is it their lives and careers that have been re-evaluated in light of how society perceives them, now they are mothers. I do know a smattering of dual-career parents working in non-standard jobs/industries, full-time dads and same-sex couples breaking the mould with pride, determination and – more often – due to circumstances that make it impossible to manage otherwise.

A friend of mine had an identical career path to her male colleague: same degree, same grade job, same company. She had a child, took nine months off and became her baby’s primary carer. Her colleague is now a managing director. She’s reduced her hours to part-time, is planning to have another child and another period of maternity leave. I know of two other similar scenarios. This happens, over and over. Women, mothers, have a tendency to take a career break at what becomes the most inopportune time. They have a tendency to change their job/hours/role after they become mothers. But what changes? Why can’t they resume their working life where they left off? Let’s put the ‘unaffordability of childcare unless you are on a significant wage and have accessible and flexible childcare provision near to work’ issue aside for a while. I’ll come back to that in future, I am sure.

 …in most cases, work is organized on the image of an unencumbered worker who is totally dedicated to the work and has no responsibilities for children and family demands other than earning a living. (Acker, 2009)

Work isn’t set up for those with childcare responsibilities, let alone working mothers. Joan Acker writes about inequality regimes. Work structures aren’t built around workers with families or caring commitments, or heaven forbid lives outside of the workplace, they have to be adapted. The built environment isn’t built around any mothers, let alone working ones. It is set up for people who go out and about at peak-time, free and easy, without baggage and without wheels. It is set up for fit and healthy white men in suits. It is set up for the character that George Clooney plays when he stands grinning next to the machine in the Nespresso advertisements, and I’m not convinced that even George Clooney fits the business-suited manager image he’s portraying. Pods of coffee? Really? He’s a coffee-in-a-cup-from-a-shop-supporting-the-local-business kind of guy, surely?

Motherhood, I’ve come to realise, is as clear-cut as it comes in causing a woman to be held back due to her gender, and it is a shock when it happens. This is what has changed: my gender has started to make a difference. Having a child could well push you into feminism, perhaps with a little militancy. You are asked questions you weren’t asked before and they seem out of place, presumptions are made about what you think and might do before your own thoughts or actions are allowed to stand for themselves. Maybe similar things were said and done previously, but you laughed them off or proved them wrong. You realise that mechanisms to bring about change are hard to find or engage with. Gender has appeared, and it’s standing in your way. The hardest thing is, you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is that is wrong, but you know it’s there. It’s everywhere.

Thinking about this tangible yet intangible concept in relation to being a researcher clarifies why I need to understand my own ontological and epistemological positions. If I know my own philosophical assumptions about reality and can find a social research approach that correlates with this and the topic I need to explore (which I may have a strong personal link to), I will have a framework and the vocabulary to make the not quite known knowable. That is my job as a PhD researcher. I’m hoping a final decision on which philosophies these are will have been made in time for my next post…

Acker, J. (2009) From glass ceiling to inequality regimes in Sociologie du travail vol. 51 pp. 199-217

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