Sod real equality of opportunity - in this economy, we all have to go to work

Like Nick Clegg, I also value equality for parents, not for “a stronger economy” but for its own sake.

A lifelong feminist, before my own kids arrived I was completely committed to the idea of shared parenting. Then my sons came along and I was confronted with that essential, almost physical need to be with them constantly. It wasn’t just breastfeeding but a broader consciousness of what “motherhood” truly meant, as though labour had awakened the… Only kidding. By month five of maternity leave I was climbing the walls. My return to spreadsheets and payslips couldn’t have come a moment too soon... (Again, only kidding. It was all about the cold, hard cash.)

Being a full-time career bitch from hell (as opposed to a lazy part-timer or a fluff-brained, cupcake-baking stay-at-home-mum), I ought to welcome Nick Clegg’s latest announcement on shared parental leave. After all, I want to be one of those “women up and down the country realising their potential, keeping their independence, fulfilling their dreams”. Indeed, it wasn’t for those pesky kids, it appears that my life would already be a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel. And yet I find myself reading Clegg’s depressingly titled "Greater Equality for a Stronger Economy" speech and feeling really bloody miserable. It all sounds so tiring. “You won’t get to 30 and suddenly have to choose: motherhood or work”, says Nick. Well, thanks for that. I might be a breeder but I’m already doing my bit for the economy (and equality, or so it would seem). I’m not complaining but please – will you get off my case? Feminism – and the fact that “we” (by which I don’t assume the likes of me) “have got so much better at telling young women: the sky’s the limit” – has made me into the obedient little economic unit I am today. Sure, I might spend my evenings reading Thomas the Tank Engine, but it doesn’t stop me being a Really Useful Engine come the next day.

Because that’s what all this feels like to me. Back to work, mummies. None of this stay-at-home slacking, not when “there’s no money around”. Sod real equality of opportunity. Sod extending paternity leave (or rather, let’s revisit it “when the economy is in a stronger state”). Sod the fact that the domestic arrangement Clegg derides – “Mum in the kitchen, Dad in the office” – is no longer affordable for most of us anyhow. Equality, if it means anything, means the important people herding everyone else back into low-paid jobs while telling them they’re realising their dreams. Excuse me if I find it less liberating than it sounds. Unlike Sam Cam, who might work two days a week but admits to “spending a lot of time thinking about work on her days off”, I get to be at work every single day. If it’s economically beneficial equality they’re after, the Coalition should look closer to home. Smythson are paying their creative consultants way too much and it’s preventing them from “realising their potential”.

I have nothing against paid work. There’s one rather obvious reason why it’s better than unpaid work (especially true if you’re female, since rather than waste your income on supporting a family, you get to spend it all on shoes or something). I was never stay-at-home mother material and would have gladly shared more of the leave I had following the birth of my children. And now, since both my partner and I work full-time anyhow, aren’t we precisely the model that Clegg’s hypothetical “young couple” should look up to? Follow us, young pioneers! No more shall “fathers miss out on being with their children” while “women lower their ambitions for themselves”. Way-hey! Three Men and a Baby domestic bliss for Daddy, Working Girl office advancement for Mummy. It’ll be just like the eighties, only minus the shoulder pads and champers (and the relatively small gap between top- and bottom-level pay, even if we didn’t think it small at the time).

It’s not just that flowery pro-equality language has been hijacked in order to sweeten the pill of making those who can’t afford to work unable not to. I have real issues with Clegg’s explanation of how gender equality will be promoted through this exploitative proposal. In Nick’s post-feminist vision, motherhood is to blame for all the hurdles faced by women in the workplace: “the moment they start planning a family, their options begin to narrow”. Hence the key to equality lies in getting Mummy back to work sharpish, breastpump in hand, providing Daddy can step into the breach. Yet is it really that straightforward? In a list of major factors explaining the pay gap, the Home Office website puts just 16 per cent of the gap down to “the negative effect of having previously worked part-time or of having taken time out of the labour market to look after a family”. Meawhile, 36 per cent remains unaccounted for, “suggesting discrimination may still be an important factor” (imagine that!). And if one is looking for evidence that plain old discrimination against workers for being female still exists, it’s not hard to find. Research suggests that if you are female, requesting a pay rise is more likely to have a negative impact on how you are perceived. You might have the best qualifications for a role, but if you’re not male, it might not be qualifications they’re after. As Cordelia Fine explains in Delusions of Gender, employers aren’t always conscious of discriminating and employees don’t always know they’re experiencing discrimination. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but if you blame its effects on the indisputable fact that some women bear children, you can make it appear invisible. 

But even if the gender pay gap were all down to the expectations we place on women when they become mothers, is three years long enough to sort the whole thing out? Because young couples, that’s all you’re being given. Three years in which to overcome the prejudice and guilt-mongering of employers, friends and relatives, in which to ignore the prod-prodding of the “Mum’s gone to Iceland” culture that surrounds you, in which to put your own financial priorities on hold in the name of the greater good that is economically prudent equality. New flexible leave laws come into effect in 2015 and then, says Clegg:

The next stage will be assessing if couples are using this new freedom. So flexible leave will be reviewed in the first few years, by 2018, and extending paternity leave will be looked at as part of that.

I’d imagine that whatever happens we still won’t be able to afford/prioritise extended paternity leave by 2018. But by that time we’ll know it doesn’t matter anyhow. The only couples who are interested in shared parenting are eccentrics such as me and my partner and those who can actually afford childcare which fits around their shift patterns. The rest of humankind will have proven once and for all that unpaid work is women’s work and that that’s what nature intended.

I’ll be honest, though. If I were to have another child, I am sure that my partner and I would want to make use of this new leave structure. I’d have a few months of being typically socially inept at baby group before heading back to the office with my trusty electric pump (which, if you’re sleep-deprived enough, appears to wheeze out the theme to Byker Grove while you’re expressing). I’d make use of the new legislation, but the fact is, ungrateful sod that I am, I’d just get on with it. I don’t see myself standing at the photocopier, breast pads ruining the cut of my work shirt, thinking “thank you, Nick! Thank you for allowing me to help men like you sort out the economy!”. The truth is, I value my job but I also value equality, not for “a stronger economy” but for its own sake. You might think that’s the only way you can sell it but alas, when you unpick the rhetoric, you’re not selling us equality at all.

Samantha Cameron works two days a week but admits to “spending a lot of time thinking about work on her days off”. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.

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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.