Yin and Yang

I am always entertained by the way that including Mr Litlove in my posts, in any capacity, turns out to be really quite appealing to you, my blogging friends. I thought about this and wondered whether it wasn’t because we balance each other out. Where I am artistic, he is scientific, where I am anxious, he is marvelously carefree, where I am pragmatic, he tends towards idealism. We are very differently hardwired, and over the years have learned to turn that to our advantage; now we benefit from that difference of perspective. His presence here in the virtual world is always a breath of fresh air into my little enclosed library, and both of us can see the virtue in that.

Balance, harmony, a perfect equilibrium of yin and yang; I think we all know and have experienced its serenity and pleasure, and to my mind, this is the secret formula behind the elusive quality that we talk so much about but never seem to really find: equality.  A couple of weeks ago in the UK there was an interesting two-part documentary on the current state of play concerning women in the work place. It backed up in all respects an extremely intriguing book I’d been reading entitled Mothers on the Fast Track, written by an American mother and daughter team, Mary Ann Mason and Eve Mason Ekman. Both book and programme said the same thing: young women enter the marketplace on level pegging with men, and earn similarly to them. But in their 30s and 40s something happens and the vast majority get turned off of the fast track, at the end of which lie the greatest career rewards in terms of money and status, and towards jobs that are mostly underpaid and lack career progression. By the end of their working lives, women can still expect to have been paid an estimated $300,000 less than their male counterparts. The professions continue to present the greatest challenge to ambitious women; in medicine, law, academia and business it continues to be a man’s world – there are barely any female surgeons, only 23% of tenure track faculty are women, and only 3% of CEOs. The figures should be taken seriously because role models are tremendously important to consolidate social change. It’s an old conundrum, but if we want women to be at the top of professions, we have to have women there already, to help and encourage and inspire those further down the ladder. But this simply isn’t happening.

The stumbling block remains the problem of childcare. It’s not that women can’t reach the top, it’s that the process of getting there is expensive and exhausting. The majority of men in demanding jobs have wives who stay home and bring up children. Hardly any of the women in the top rung have such a luxury. The longer hours a man works, the more likely he is to have children, and the more children he is likely to have. It’s still ideologically important for a man to be seen to provide for a family. For a woman, it is still ideologically important for her to be deeply involved in bringing up children, and so when women also work, they simply take on two shifts. Figures suggest that women with children end up working a solid and depressing 90-hour week, far more hours than any of the other categories (men with or without children, women without children), and that level of commitment is just hard to sustain. And look what the professions ask of their employees. Ever since women entered the workplace in significant figures, the time commitment involved in traditional, influential careers has steadily become ever greater. It’s now regularly expected of lawyers that they will work late into the night on important cases, will travel repeatedly and at short notice, as well as entertaining clients or preparing paperwork on weekends. The situation in academia is equally exhausting, with academics overburdened with demands for teaching, administration and research. But perhaps the worst of all is the medical profession, which regularly expects junior doctors to work shifts of more than thirty hours. After an important precedent was set in America when a hospital was sued for negligence due to the exhaustion of its staff, laws were passed that were intended to limit the time doctors were on duty. But a survey taken ten years later showed that over half the teaching hospitals inspected had violated those laws. You have to pause and think about this and wonder what’s at stake here. On the one hand there is a rather ugly commercial intent to bleed employees for all they are worth, to get as much work out of people as they are physically able to give in order to make them good value. But workers accept this because of a fierce culture in the workplace that celebrates being visible. Being there. It’s crazy, in a world of such sophisticated communications technology that people have to be seen as much as they do. And it’s crazy in a rich society that we have to work people so hard. There’s no reason for it, other than a privileging of visibility. Men complain that women take many more sick days, mostly linked to their hormonal cycle, but I wonder when someone is going to tally up the amount of hours men spend surfing the net after boozy lunches. It’s not so easy to do, is it, when the worker is sitting at his desk, but I would put money on those gender differences evening out.

So, my point here is that the reason women fail to rise to the top of their professions, particularly when they have children, is that the culture in the work place remains resolutely set against them. And resolutely masculine, in the old-fashioned ways. Work is still an aggressive, competitive arena, lacking in compassion or empathy for the private self, money-driven in a way that verges on being unethical (and often crosses the line) and obsessed with people being visibly available. In other words, it’s all yang, and not enough yin. As individuals we all have the capacity to be both yin and yang, both masculine and feminine, but these environments appeal to only one side of the brain and the heart. So men and women, regardless, get sucked into believing that work is necessarily the way it is, rather than seeking to implement proper, sustainable change. And we really have to ask ourselves whether we are truly happy with the situation we have created here. Look at the recent banking crisis. If that wasn’t a tragedy of relentless, mindless yang over the more cautious, gentle, pragmatic qualities of yin, I don’t know what it was. It was a testosterone-driven, risk-crazy, greed-compelled catastrophe for which bankers are still failing to take adequate responsibility. And when I read those figures for the average shift of a junior doctor I felt horrified. I don’t want that exhausted person performing delicate surgery on me; I wouldn’t even want them to take my temperature. Just as I wouldn’t want my case handled by lawyers who’d been up all night or to buy products from a company so obsessed with money making that they took unethical decisions. The global political arena is still straightforwardly dominated by men and determinedly, hubristically masculine, and what about technology? It’s probably the most significant industry in the world right now, and extremely masculine in its structures. I’m not saying that women can’t or don’t work in it – far from it, but that they work in left-brain environments, heavily reliant on logic, analysis and objectivity.

I think it’s time we evened things up a little. There’s a lot to be said for yang – it’s a fine combination of qualities – but it grows out of control without the balancing factor of yin. That’s what I would wish for the world; more compassion, more charity, a pleasure in intuition and play, the ability to look at the situation as a whole, not as compartmentalized fragments, an understanding of the value in weakness and gentleness, not simply a validation of power. I would like for us to cherish respect of other people’s individuality, to foster an ability to intervene and offer support that does not inevitably develop into a hostile takeover, to celebrate patience and charity, all the traditional qualities of yin, and qualities associated with the mothers who are still resolutely excluded from the work place. George Sand said way back in the nineteenth century that the perfectly equal state would mirror the perfectly equal marriage and she was really onto something. The only way we can make that change is by each of us letting difference in, by asking for reasonable working conditions and by refusing to be seduced into thinking things must be the way they are. Equality, balance, harmony – it’s not impossible, only very, very different.

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17 thoughts on “Yin and Yang

  1. This is very true, but it is also part of the great complexity which our way of doing things produces. The credit crunch is the result of the need to make more money. In a competetive world a bank (or whatever), sees a rival giving a better deal, so it pushes its risk a little to match or better them and gain customers. The rival edges a little further into risk to regain its edge, and so on. Eventually they go so far out on a limb they fall off. What drives this though is us – the consumer – always wanting the better deal. We want employment in this country and a decent wage, but we also want things cheap, so jobs go abroad or pay poor wages for heavier workloads. We don’t want doctors attending us who have put in long hours. That means more doctors, but we want lower taxes so we won’t pay for them. Now women no doubt receive the thin end of the wedge in all this, but it is a problem for the entire working of society. Until the greed culture lessens the issue of wanting so much for so little will distort everything we do. Oh dear – misery response – sorry, but a key topic for our society.

  2. I was discussing this with my husband just this morning. It’s tricky stuff. How to reward both work experience and those who opt to take a different track? But it ought to be done.

  3. Extremely well put. I couldn’t agree more. Terribly serious. Terribly important. Still terribly radical and largely unthinkable. The heart of this issue is indeed ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ values, not men and women, though it is certainly, but not exclusively, women who often suffer most from the historical and continuing bias.

  4. Marvelous post Litlove. It is rather distressing, the topic of women in the workplace. We are in the process in the U.S. of confirming a new supreme court justice. A woman, I was not surprised to find out, who is not married and has no children. I think as long as we continue to expect that taking care of the family is a woman’s responsibility, we won’t see large numbers of women in visible and powerful positions. It is too bad because, as you so eloquently put it in terms of yin and yang, women tend to bring a different persepctive to work that could potentially be revolutionary.

    As for why your posts in which Mr. Litlove makes an appearance are so popular, you do compliment each other nicely, but you also tend to have a light and lively writing style that includes a lot of humor and personality. There is also somehow a more intimate feel to them, a rare peek behind the curtain so to speak.

  5. We like Mr. Litlove in your posting life because we are morbidly curious Peeping Toms. :-)

    The business dilemma is very real, and very disheartening. I happen to live in a city where small business flourishes and effectively competes with big business, but in the wider world, it’s very hard to change the dominant framework because nothing can compete against it.

    The issue of women being held back in the workplace is incredibly difficult to solve, I think. Childcare is a big part of it. There’s also a simple undeniable biological factor as well … there isn’t a way to change the fact that women give birth and are generally the primary bonding figure for babies and small children, particularly if they choose to breastfeed. I certainly don’t think it’s fair that women in the workplace should suffer financially for this fact. But there’s really the practical dilemma of what to do for women who do want to take 5 years to be at home with small children until they go off to school. If I were out of my field for five years, regardless of the reason, I wouldn’t expect to re-enter where I left off, either … I’d know there would be a consequence to doing that. I don’t know, I guess I’m rambling a bit here, but I think part of the problem is the pushing of the myth of “having it all” … of being a full-time parent, and being completely “successful” in one’s career. I don’t think it’s possible or desirable to do both. It exhausts the parent, and sets a bad example for the children, as well.

    I was talking about exactly this with my dear friend Elissa yesterday. Her mother is a high-powered academic physician … one of the most famous, award-winning pediatricians in the United States. She left both of her children with caregivers shortly after they were born, and because she wasn’t paying enough attention, she left them with caregivers who were less than ideal. The children’s resultant behavior, which would have alerted an attentive parent to the fact that something was very wrong, was skimmed over because the parents were so busy. Elissa’s mother is a brilliant, driven, ambitious woman who would not have been happy as a stay-at-home mom. Her father is similarly-wired. It’s hard for me not to say that these folks just shouldn’t have kids if they’re not prepared to make the personal sacrifices required to raise them. They had no problem affording childcare. The problem is that it’s not possible to be at the top of one’s field and still really be a parent. Yes, it’s important to be personally fulfilled. It may be the most important thing to some people, and if it is, I really believe some hard thinking has to be done as to whether that can be set aside for what is really much more important — the nurturing and parenting of children who are utterly at the mercy of adults around them. In some ways, perhaps the problem isn’t how we regard women in the workplace … it’s how we regard the needs of children.

    Elissa chose to stay at home with her children for the first two years of their lives, and thanks to her mother’s example, she feels like a failure. Her self-loathing and self-criticism are painful to see and hear. She thinks that her mother sees her as a cop-out and a failure, and she also feels herself to be a failure and a stone in the road of feminist progress.

    Personally, I would like to see our corporate culture changed in a way that is more respectful of the needs of children — for example, mandatory company paid maternity leave for a year, with a guaranteed return to the same position. I would also like to see all parents of children under the age of 10 given 10 extra paid sick or personal days per year to cover potential absences based on a child’s illness. I guess this could be seen as an unfair reward for having kids, but I’d see it more as a reward for being a good and appropriate parent.

    I don’t know quite how I got off on this tangent, except to say … yes, the yin and yang of business is way off, but I think part of that is due to our adult-centric culture, as well as to an imbalance of masculine/feminine.

  6. Hear! Hear! That’s exactly what I’d like to see. Thanks so much for getting it all down so perfectly for me. And I agree with David, too: this society needs to think about the needs of children first and foremost (for instance, children need their mothers AND their fathers. One parent isn’t enough, so more consideration needs to be given to making sure men aren’t out of the house 50+ hours a week just because women are at home with the kids), and the rest where follow as it should.

  7. Ditto. It does link to childcare but we have to remain staunch on “sharing” at home ’til we can at least morph our corporate cultures. Can we have it all? YEs, as you say, we have to redefine the work, not the love or presence of family.
    And please – we work our asses off – give the women the same (if not more) money.
    The new luxury? Time. Not stuff. Just time. Free time.

  8. it is so very complicated, because it is also unfair to tell those who don’t have children and want to focus on their career instead, “sorry, even though you produce more or are more up-to-date, we’re privileging those with children by only expecting a certain level of accomplishment.” I sort of have a post brewing on this, and when i have a chance, i’ll link back here.

  9. Lilian – thank you! Very glad you think the same.

    Bookboxed – While the world focuses exclusively on capitalism, then things remain difficult. We ask that the economy is steadily and continously growing – something which seems ridiculous to me, and unnecessary. What’s needed is an attitude change, an acceptance of a different way of life based on qualities that aren’t purely monetary. I fear that climate change will make that happen in years to come, but it would be much better if we accepted to think about this now. I know it seems impossible if you get entrenched in our current ideology. But the more we talk about it, and spread around other ideas, other thoughts, then maybe we can start that attitude change. Just by pausing and thinking that things really could be different. Of course, if we believe they can’t then we’re doomed, that’s that.

    ds – thank you! :)

    Jenny – it is difficult, because it means asking our culture to reconsider its scale of value. I do think the place to start is working hours, and the recognition that quality in work is what we ought to recompense, not quantity.

    Jean – you’re quite right that it’s women who get the raw end of the deal. But you know the problem with arguing along gender lines. The fact of gender blinds us to everything else that’s at stake. I wish other approaches weren’t so unthinkable but I fear you are perfectly correct.

    Stefanie – yes, you’re quite right that childcare lies at the heart of this problem. And the difficulties of working with children remain hard to negotiate. Sadly, when there are visible mothers in the workplace, they end up being Sarah Palin, which isn’t quite so helpful as one might wish. I don’t have the solution, but I know that it starts with recognising that quality of work is what’s important, and that women might well be able to produce that quality with flexible hours and more time spent working from home. Even a little change in that direction would start to loosen attitudes up. And thankyou for explaining the charm of Mister Litlove! I’m sure he does have a good effect on what I do.

    David – I quite agree with you – mothers need to mother their children well, and provide them with the support they need to grow in well-attached security. What I would like to see are the following things:

    1. Better training for new mothers. Mothers get told lots and lots of stuff when children are born and most of it is unreasonable, excessive or frightening. We need proper understanding of what it is that constitutes a stable mother-child bond, and support for mothers while they form it. It would be good, too, if our society mustered some status for the hard job of mothering – it wouldn’t be before time.

    2. Yup, decent maternity leave. In the UK you are allowed to take up to a year, with about three-quarters of that paid. There should be good paternity leave too. And no question about getting your job back.

    3. When women return to work, they should return by means of a gentle transition. Working part time, from home at first, to reacquaint themselves with their job and get used to the separation from the child (and vice versa of course).

    4. Childcare is a fraught issue. There do need to be better controls on all forms of it – the government could do it if they choose, but alas it suits them to keep women out of work.

    5. A recognition that quality of work is what counts. I know that people can do as much in an organised 8-hour day of steady working as in a 12-hour day that of necessity starts to include periods of loss of concentration, boredom, and fatigue. I see it all the time in the students; some insist on working from 9am to 9pm in the library and they do far worse than the others who work smarter rather than harder, discern what really needs to be done, and achieve it with focus, breaks and regular meals.

    6. If we recognise that quality is what counts, then mothers in the workplace need to produce work to the necessary quality, and if they can do that and take an extra day off to care for a sick child, who then is being treated unfairly?

    I do agree that our culture wants children looked after to the best of people’s ability but most of all they want that childcare to be free. Failing to make concessions for this essential task does seem both foolish and brutal when you actually look at it. I’m really sorry for your friend, Elissa. It sounds to me like she ended up with the worst of both worlds. I really hope that her own children will prove to her the value of what she’s done by caring for them. It sounds like her mother’s voice is lodged inside her head, though, and that’s what she needs to tackle. No decent feminist is going to do anything other than give her a hug.

    Emily – I do agree. It’s no good for a family to have the father working away all the time. I really do think it would be better if that stay-at-work-all-hours culture could be tempered. When men tell me they have to be in the office until ten at night, I’m so tempted to say ‘Why? Do you really find the work that difficult?’ Sadly so many want to feel important that way, when the value they bring to their wife and children by being at home, attentive and loving is so, so much greater.

    Oh – you said that so well – that’s exactly what I mean. We need to redefine work – what we want from it, what constitutes good work, what makes value. And if we did that, rather than counting hours or speculating on people’s prospects, then we’d have fair wages. I forgot to mention the pay gap that still exists between men and women for the same work. It’s terribly unjust. And I also agree completely that time is the precious commodity. My husband was talking to a man who’d had a demanding job that involved a lot of travelling for ten years. He earned well but he said that now he looked back, he felt he’d just lost a decade of his life and had little to show for it. Well, quite.

    Emily – I suppose I hadn’t envisaged it like that. I was thinking that maybe people without children might also want – or benefit from – a life beyond work. Sport, culture, further education. What’s to stop them from using time outside the office in differently productive ways, giving back to their community, running groups, charity, or working to better themselves. I’m not suggesting a sort of communist work state in which everyone is rigorously identical in what they can achieve. People could still get on by their own efforts, but is staying late the only way we can conceive of them doing so? Well, I’ll be very interested to read your post when you write it. We have to keep it as an issue that’s up for discussion.

  10. When I think of the struggles female authors had/have to make to balance work and family, I’m inevitably reminded of the great Shirley Jackson. Of course, she turned her experiences into some lovely, humorous efforts like LIFE AMONG THE SAVAGES and RAISING DEMONS.

    I was a “stay at home dad”, so I empathize. But looking after my two lads also taught me some valuable lessons about marshaling my time and working efficiently. I found that I wrote MORE after our kids arrived and that had to do with discipline, an important lesson for ANY author to learn.

    Great post, as always.

  11. Cliff – I salute you, Sir. First of all for taking on that hugely complex role of prime carer and for having found out all that is good about it. And secondly for having supplied me with another artistic mother (I’m collecting them). I didn’t realise that Shirley Jackson had four children, AND managed to write about them. Now I’ve ordered a copy of Life Among the Savages and am looking forward to it very much – thank you!!!

  12. I just think people have to make choices in life and the myth of having it all is a myth. Women who choose to spend time with their children regardless of the childcare available are choosing to opt out of climbing to the top of their career ladders and should be aware that this is a conscious choice and be happy with that choice. Driven people without or who ignore their children can have those top spots as far as I’m concerned. It just isn’t worth the sacrifices to me. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves. It requires sacrifices that most sane and loving mothers would not want to make. That’s just reality.

  13. Great post! I was arguing the other day that I see no problem in Obama picking a woman of Hispanic origin in an obvious effort to keep and improve the amount of diversity on the court, and your post confirms my thoughts — we need the flexibility you describe and one way to help that along is to make sure we have lots of different voices being heard.

  14. Squirrel – I think you are probably right; I just wish the choice weren’t quite so loaded. If mothering received more status in our countries, that would help. If it were possible to advance at work without having to stay hugely long hours (which I don’t agree with for anyone, male, female, father, mother, or any other category), that would help. You’re right it boils down to choice, but I wish it were a choice in which women could feel validated in both their options.

    Dorothy – couldn’t agree with you more. One of the important achievements of second wave feminism was the retrieval of women’s voices from cultural silence. I don’t think we should ever feel too grand or too settled to keep on doing that.

    Cliff – I’m really looking forward to them, and quite sure a review will be on its way!

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