OECD Forum 2011. Work and family – a tough balance to strike

Cherie Blair offered some insights into the battle to balance work and family life during a session at the OECD 50th Anniversary Forum. Ms. Blair has a unique perspective – she’s a leading barrister in the United Kingdom and, of course, spent a decade in 10 Downing Street as wife of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. 

She recalled that back in the 1970s, both she and her husband were competing for the same job in a legal firm. “They took Tony because they thought he was a better bet,” she said. “Seven years later, he left that job and hasn’t been a lawyer since; 35 years later I’m still a lawyer.” The incident underlined what she felt was the danger of employers failing to take a long-term perspective: Over the course of a career, she said, maternity leave took women out of the workplace for only a relatively short time, and it should not be seen as a barrier to hiring. 

Ms. Blair also emphasised that parental rights were not just a woman’s issue: Men, she said, needed to assert their right to be caring parents. Women, she said, did twice as much childcare as men, and three times as much housework as men. While Tony had done his share of childcare, she told the audience, he had slipped behind on the housework. She said also that there could be cultural obstacles to men performing their parenting role. In some companies there was also an attitude that “real men don’t take parental leave.” Those attitudes needed to change, she said: “A distant absent father is not good for society.”

In Japan, fewer than 2% of men took paternity leave, said Yoshinori Suematsu, a Japanese Senior Vice-Minister. The rapid ageing of the Japanese population meant it was important to get as many women as possible into the workforce, he said. Japanese needed a new system of childcare so that women could work outside house and not worry about childcare. 

Changing attitudes wasn’t easy, he admitted, but, as Carlos Mulas-Granados, Executive Director of Spain’s IDEAS Foundation, pointed out, they can be changed. The decision to appoint equal numbers of women and men as ministers in the Spanish government had helped shift how women were viewed, he said, especially the sight of a woman defence minister going about her duties. “A pregnant woman reviewing the troops was a very powerful image,” he said.  

Ms. Blair agreed that women in government could serve as important role models. She recalled a story she’d heard from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected woman president in Africa, about touring a school in Liberia. As the tour went on, the children grew tired and restless, and one little girl found herself being ticked off by a teacher: “Be careful what you say to me, Sir,” the little girl replied, “because one day I could be president.”  

Useful links

OECD work on families and children  

Babies and Bosses  – an OECD study on reconciling work and family life

Brian Keeley

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