Lizzie Marvelly: Once upon a time there was a man ...

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Moves for gender equality too often do not end happily ever after.
Equal responsibility for our children should be within everyone's reach.
Equal responsibility for our children should be within everyone's reach.

Once upon a time, in a land so far from ours it may as well be Mars, there was a little boy who grew up with society telling him that being a dad would be the most important job he'd ever have. He would dream at night of the day when a woman would choose him to be her husband, and while away hours naming the future children they'd have together - children who, he was told, would fulfil him as a man.

As he grew older, he studied hard and eventually landed a role at a law firm as a talented young lawyer, but even as he excelled at his work, he could sense his female bosses wondering when he'd leave to raise a family. When he eventually did marry, he began constantly fielding the question of when he was going to have a baby. When he became a father, he found himself torn in half. He loved his child, and wanted to spend as much time as possible caring for her - as everyone knew a father's place should be in the home - but somewhere between swaddling, endless bodily fluids, and The Wiggles, he realised that he missed his work as a lawyer.

When his paternity leave was up, his firm was unable to offer him flexible hours. The road to becoming a partner required real "commitment", so he chased his tail for a while, feeling guilty every time his daughter reached a milestone in his absence, before leaving to be a fulltime dad. He could always go back, he told himself, and then felt guilty again for entertaining the thought that maybe fatherhood wasn't the single most important thing he could do with his life. A thought he quickly stifled.

Three children later, and nearly a decade out of the workforce, he decided, with his youngest now at school, that he would like to return to work. His wife encouraged him, although her executive's salary - the result of a decade of uninterrupted career advancement, other than a month's leave for the birth of each child - covered the bills and then some.

When he returned, he still grappled with the guilt of leaving his children, but he enjoyed being in the company of adults again. He soon realised, however, that a lot had changed during his time at home. He found himself relegated to the least important cases, while women he'd entered the workforce with nearly 20 years ago sat in the corner offices. He was just as qualified as they were and maybe even more intelligent than some but no matter how hard he knocked, the doors to advancement seemed firmly shut.

When we talk about 'work-life balance' we are almost always talking about women.

Some things had changed for the better. He was leered at less in the office, as a new generation of handsome young things had materialised to occupy the attention of his bosses. Some things had not changed at all. He was still sometimes asked to make the coffee for meetings and often found himself clearing the dishes his female colleagues left languishing in the office kitchen. He occasionally watched young men leave suddenly, walking from HR, past their desks and out the door while a powerful boss looked on from her office.

When it came time for him to retire, he looked back on his life and felt immensely proud of his now-grown children but there was a part of him that wondered whether he might have gone further had he bucked the trend and remained childless. He quickly dismissed the thought, as the guilt set in. The most important things in a man's life were his wife and children, he repeated to himself. Fatherhood had made his life meaningful.

I've always been a fan of fairy tales. They possess the power to make the utterly unbelievable flicker into life as you pore over the page. The story of The Conundrum of the Male Lawyer and the Baby is, of course, just that - fantasy. It was so hard to imagine that it was difficult to write, and yet it is still an inevitable reality for many female lawyers and professionals of all stripes.

This week, the news surfaced that two out of three young female lawyers in New Zealand believe their gender will negatively impact their career prospects. The statistics support their concerns - whereas female law graduates have outnumbered their male counterparts for decades, only 27 per cent of partners and directors are women.

The report found that the lack of women in senior roles at New Zealand law firms meant that young women lacked role models. A number of the women surveyed were also concerned about the explicit sexist attitudes of their male colleagues.

The path to becoming a partner was singled out by Law Society executive director Christine Grice, who told Radio New Zealand that "women really find it difficult to balance work and life". What struck me immediately was the fact that when we talk about "work-life balance" we are almost always talking about women. The decision to have a family - if you're a female professional - often seems to spell the end of any semblance of equality that may hypothetically have existed in the workplace.

As much as we'd like to believe that gender is no longer an issue, I have male friends my age who automatically assume that the women they marry will stay at home to raise their children. When I speak at co-ed schools, boys tell me that they expect that they will be the main breadwinner. In a time when we supposedly don't need feminism any more, gender roles still seem alarmingly entrenched in Aotearoa.

I'm not suggesting that we turn the tables, and penalise men as women have been penalised for generations, but is it too much to ask that both parents take equal responsibility for their children? Or that their workplaces support them equally?

Because as it stands - as women in the legal profession know only too well - gender equality is a fairy tale.

- NZ Herald

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