There are a lot of words in the modern vernacular that have a particularly negative connotation when used to describe women: Frumpy, bossy, ambitious, slut or driven.
Some of these are words that you would never hear used to describe a man in a bad light, some are only used to describe a woman when we want to put her down. The gender biases in our language, especially words or phrases that are negative to women but praise men, are incredibly frustrating to those of us on the receiving end.
I want to add a new word to this pile. 'Career', or perhaps 'career woman'. I remember as a young child that the children of women who worked were called 'latchkey kids'. Both parents worked and so after school, the children would be home by themselves until one or both parents returned from work. Or there was another carer involved, such as a family member or nanny. Either way, the pity in people's voices talking about these poor, temporarily motherless children was very evident.
The fact that mothers had chosen to work was seemingly the reason behind any problem for those children. If they failed a test, failed to make a sports team, watched too much TV, were badly behaved. If their mother wasn't so dedicated to her career, then the children, the family and the marriage would be okay.
Several decades on, not much has changed. We may tolerate career women but we sure as hell do not like them or approve of them. And we still love blaming them. Marriage broke down? It was her job, not the husband's infidelity. No children? She's socially barren because she's a workaholic. Children with any difficulty at school? The mother who works is to blame. Unable to find a partner? Stop working so much and you will. You can have a career, but rest assured, one foot wrong and those around you will point and say I told you so for daring to be educated, work and contribute or just do what you like.
We still have a very narrow worldview when it comes to women's participation in the workforce, especially in jobs that require an extraordinary level of commitment. We tell these women that their participation will negatively impact her ability to have a stable relationship, or inevitably ask if she has thought about how children will impact her ability to do her job. There is a definite undertone of choice. Choose career and become a crazy cat lady or a mother with unstable children. Choose a family and there goes your career.
In my profession, we have a number of initiatives to support women in surgery, in order to attract young women to a job that is very male dominated. The most common questions I am asked are how my partner felt about being dragged around the country for my work and how I fit family in my life. My response to both is that you just have to work out what is right for you because I do believe in a person's choice, but that does not stop people pitying my partner or referring to me as socially barren.
The fact is, we are all judgmental when it comes to the gender roles we expect both men and women to play in the workforce and in private lives. I might even go as far as to say that despite the changes in our society, we still have a great big stick up our butts when it comes to gender, for both men and women. While women are often on the receiving end, so too are the men who choose to forego careers for family.
It is exhausting. If we make choices that are right for us and our situations, how is that wrong? Why are deviations from gender roles the root cause of all evil?
Obviously, I am personally frustrated by my career being to blame for anything and everything, but the growing disquiet from many other women who work, or men who want to parent more than their fathers did, should be more cause for concern than if we are fitting into some arbitrary mould. This is not a problem with the individuals who make choices about their lives nor are they to blame for any and every problem. This is yet another way in which we are all constrained by gender roles, by stereotypes and biased expectations. It is yet another demonstration as to the flaws in our thinking, the systems of our society and the way we run our workplaces.
The way forward is to challenge these biases. Working is not a dirty word for women and we should make that known. Relationships fail because of a multitude of reasons, not just a woman dares to work. Couples don't have children by choice or because of biology. Some men want to work less to be with their flesh and blood and that is okay.
Rather than perpetuating rumours, stereotypes and biases, challenge them. Eventually, the message will get through.