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The high premium placed on paid work in Western society has marginalised the fundamental need for the nurture of children, the elderly and the disadvantaged. This has resulted in a dominant culture of challenge, while those whose primary role is caring, many of them women, are paid low salaries or do it for nothing. Rev Professor June Boyce-Tillman RSA argues that we need to think again.

As a feminist throughout the 1960s, '70s and ‘80s I fought for and saw women enter spheres traditionally occupied by men. During my childhood in the 1940s and ‘50s I could never have imagined that I would ever have held the titles of Reverend and Professor. Neither post was open to women even though I was being educated to have them; especially when I gave up needlework and cookery after my first year at secondary school in order to take the Latin necessary for Oxbridge entrance.  Up to that time I had been educated into the ways of a traditional woman: being prepared for running a home and caring for children. 

Although we were right to fight for our entry into the upper echelons of the workplace, we should have fought equally for the valuing of the nurturing roles that women traditionally fulfilled. The reason for the failure of the Big Society vision, which was based on the world of the 1950s and 60s, was the loss of the voluntary labour of intelligent and energetic middle-aged women whose children had grown up. This big volunteer taskforce of yesteryear is no longer there. Meanwhile, a culture of challenge prevails, dominating the media with nurturing seldom reported. However, to be engaged fully in either challenging or nurturing tasks can become either destructive or boring. The thrust of this article is that a life balance of the two would make the lives of both men and women more balanced and fulfilled. 

The sphere of paid work reflects the dominant competitive and challenging.  It has produced global increases in effective communication.  Products can be separated from their creators and marketed easily, whereas nurture in such areas as the public services is that the products are less clearly defined and demand face-to-face human contact. They are process-based and require unpredictable amounts of time. The old, the young, the disabled are simply regarded as drains on a competitive productive economy.

Society is split between the workaholics and the unemployed. The dominance of the archetypal myth of the heroic journey has led to the creation of a profoundly challenging society with the greatest financial rewards given to those able to meet its challenges with little nurture. In school, children have to meet constant challenges of standardised tests and while schools face penalties for failures to meet the challenge. It is often women who have highlighted the need for nurture in the system and often their work has been lost or ignored.

During the period of the author’s life the advent of readily available and safe contraception has given women and men greater control over their reproductive processes. For women this has widened their choices; but in their working lives the devaluing of the process of caring has done women less favours. The western working structures with their patterns of reward and promotion have meant that women have been forced into bearing children later in their lives when child-bearing is more difficult physically.  The pattern of paid working life has also meant that men too can pay little part in the process of bringing up their children. The sphere of paid work developed in a way that suited men’s bodies better than women’s. Women have a more limited window for child bearing than men have and the main age for career advancement is situated in the centre of these years.

The advent of women in the workplace required a radical rethinking of the work structures of Western society. This included more flexible patterns of working, freeing up educational processes to enable child rearing to take place younger, the re-establishment of networks of people such as the extended family and kinship groups to enable child rearing to be a communal activity, valuing of part-time working in career advancement and the reduction of ageism in employment practices. Much of this was not thought through or carried out.

Job share needs to become the norm rather than the exception. My experience of it is that a good pair of people do a job more efficiently than a single person. This would mean that most people would have half a job and the rest of their time would be spent caring for children, older people or those in need.  It would mean a more balanced life for all and both men and women would play their part in nurturing tasks and working environments.

This would mean that so-called part-time working would count in the pattern of working one’s way up through a job or a profession. At the moment it is a disadvantage that is mostly visited on women, which is exacerbated by the fact that men’s salaries are still often higher than women’s. The problem with this pattern at present is the immense rise in house prices, which now require two salaries in many places to cover the huge costs of mortgages and rents. The alternative to this solution is a complete restructuring of wages so that caring is paid for at rates that reflect its value to the wider society.

My suggestion is that the development of women’s positions within the working environment has ignored the differences between the male and the female body and the need for nurturing within our society. This article calls for a revision of the dominant value system, which devalues nurture in favour of more challenging roles that have traditionally been male and calls on a more balanced model of living that would benefit both men and women.

The Rev Dr June Boyce-Tillman MBE FHEA is Professor of Applied Music, Artistic Convenor for the Centre for the Arts as Wellbeing, University of Winchester, Extra-ordinary Professor, North West University, South Africa, author of Unconventional Wisdom (Equinox)


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