As I was cleaning up my sons’ toys last night and muttering to myself about the entitlement of my boys, a thought suddenly struck me: ‘if I don’t do this, then who will’? As in, I have implored every member of this household to tidy up after themselves and I still f**king get stuck doing it because if I don’t do it, clearly no one else will. That’s how I spent International Women’s Day, essentially doing what women do: all the stuff, big and small, that needs to get done because if we don’t do it, who will?
Now make no mistake; I’m one of the lucky ones. My husband is one of the good ones. He cooks some weekends, cleans up after dinner, is on toddler duty as soon as steps through the door in the evening and his shift doesn’t end until about 6 the next morning. I know I’m lucky. But still, I find myself doing things and thinking ahead in ways my (useful) husband never would. I often ask myself ‘why’ because I am raising boys and I want them to be good partners to people someday and contribute to the world. What I’ve realized about the many wonderful men in my life is that most of them are good at the big things. So they’re good at excelling at their jobs or doing well in academia or being assertive when needed. But when it comes to the details of life like managing the family calendar, dressing the kids so they don’t look shipwrecked, or running a household they are, as my cousin so aptly put it ‘Mr. 70%’.
As women, we all know how much we do and how much is expected of us. We’ve obviously known all along, whether it was watching our mothers, aunts, sisters, etc or doing it our damn selves. But now that it’s hip to talk about women and the unique ways in which we ‘add’ to work environments and ‘contribute’ to society, I’ve been trying to understand what it is about women (and mothers especially) that makes them so impactful. It’s all the rage to talk about women-owned businesses being more successful than standard ones and the need for flexible working precisely because women’s contributions mean so much to the labour force that we can no longer afford to exclude them. But these articles, research studies, and statistics don’t answer the ‘why’ of this female contribution. Why are female employees so productive and why do female entrepreneurs get it right more often?
Quite simply because women learn from a young age that if they don’t make it happen for themselves, pretty much no one else will. Your parents will try. Your teachers might encourage you. Your (female) colleagues may go to bat for you. Ultimately, though, you’re working in a system that expects you to be a loving and supportive (read submissive) wife or partner, a perfect mum, a flawless homemaker, and a model employee who isn’t too threatening to the higher-ups.
Now of course this isn’t true for everyone. There are plenty of entitled women and a growing number of men who truly want to see their wives, partners, sisters, female colleagues, etc excel at whatever they choose to do. And then of course there’s race and social class that transcend gender and quash peoples’ ambitious in horrible ways. But we know being born a woman can put you at a disadvantage if you don’t find a way to fight the system, whether you’re born in Europe or Asia (although the stakes may be significantly different).
So why can mothers do so much and why are females so successful in the workplace when they are given the opportunity to stay instead of being forced into the home by a desire to have children? Because as women we approach everything we do with an ‘if I don’t do this, then who will’ attitude. If I don’t make dinner for this family, then who else will? If I don’t complete this project thoroughly, then who will? If I don’t fix the problems in the workplace that I experienced at all my previous jobs, then who will? If I don’t make a stand for other mothers, working mothers, older mothers, etc, then who will? We know the answers to these questions are often ‘no one’ and that is what drives us to success when we are given the chance or when we are able to carve that chance out for ourselves.
I have the good fortune of working for a women-owned business and what I’ve noticed is that the female leaders not only slay it in the creativity and idea department, they actually follow all the way through with their projects. When needed they delegate but often, they will birth and raise an entire project from start to finish without needing to drag an unnecessary number of employees into the situation. It’s a skill because not only is it highly efficient, it’s inspiring to watch people so committed to an idea that they work doggedly to turn it into something real and beneficial, whether that’s made up of tiny components or outward facing tasks. One of my siblings also runs a company with two other women and together these three women are completely shaking up their industry from attracting new business to fundamentally changing working practices for parents and employees who want a life outside of work. I believe it’s because all these women, intentionally or otherwise, approach their lives from an ‘if I don’t disrupt this industry, then who will’ attitude.
So my new mantra to my children is ‘if you don’t do this, then who will?’ I hope this will serve the dual purpose of teaching my sons to think like women so that they’re not just good at the big things, but at all the things that make a home-life and work-life so rich. (And also so that they can walk from one end of the living room to the other without tripping over 18 different toys.) But then also instill in them that fighting instinct that so many women have because they know nothing will be handed to them. When you’re forced to answer the question ‘if you don’t do this, then who will’, you’re forced to think about who picks up the slack when you fall short. I want my boys to be the answer to that question, just like so many women before them.