When A Response Is Change
Angry Letters, indignation & being ignored: When the only response is change, we win.
‘Oh, he’s always writing letters to this or that MP,’ said Mum, speaking about my dad. ‘The best they do is fob you off. It doesn’t do anything except make him feel better.’
I’m usually not the first to rush to Dad’s defence, but I did. My stomach clenched slightly, preparing for an argument. ‘At least he’s trying to make change,’ I said. This last part was heavily accented with accusation: ‘It’s better than sitting back and complaining but not doing anything.’
And that’s how I truly feel. How can things change if no one is prepared to call it out, to ask for better, and arrive there with ideas of their own on how to make things better? Another reason my hackles raised then is because I’ve written a few letters in my time too. I wrote one about this time last year, after applying for a job with a large organisation.
Real Jobs, Real Occupations
You know what I mean by ‘job’, right? Real Jobs — capital ‘R’ capital ‘J’ — ‘job’ jobs, where you earn a salary, have a boss, maybe some underlings, and get things like paid leave, sick leave and superannuation. Freelancing isn’t always like that; I’m not one of those six-figure wonder women with staff yet. Motherhood is definitely not like that.
Despite being touted as ‘the most important job in the world’, motherhood continues to be an unpaid position. Mothers (and yes, the money normally comes from the mother’s pay packet) buy their free time. ‘Free time’ meaning time to participate in paid work. Even with the government’s Child Care Subsidy, Australian families are paying one of the highest amounts for childcare in the world. Mothers face a tax penalty for returning to the paid workforce for more than four days a week, suffer pregnancy discrimination, and mothers trying to return to the paid workforce are seen as a ‘risk’ by employers, not as committed as men with the same qualifications.
I knew all of this as I filled out a job application a year ago. So you can imagine my ire when I was asked to select from a drop down menu ‘which option best describes your current occupation’, and didn’t find parenthood or unpaid caring listed as an occupation. The next closest option was ‘Unemployed’. I’ve been unemployed. As a mother of three children, I knew I wasn’t unemployed. And I knew I wasn’t having it.
I blogged about it, angrily. Then I wrote a letter.
On Angry Letters and Indignation
I wrote an Angry Letter. And by ‘angry’, I don’t mean I ranting and raving incoherently like some sort of sexist stereotype of a hysterical woman with nothing better to do. I mean I used my anger as an agent for taking action. That’s anger’s job, after all. If you want to get technical, I was more indignant than angry. In Rage Becomes Her (2018, Simon & Schuster), author and journalist Soraya Chemaly says that indignation is:
“[A] specific kind of anger rooted believing that you are being treated unfairly. A precognition for indignation is a secure sense of your worth and an equally strong sense that some valuable standard or norm has been violated.”
The words we use, and the occupations we recognise as worthy and legitimate, matter. Of course I was indignant.
I sent one copy to the website team, and then straight to the top, the head honcho of the organisation’s Human Resources department. I told them the structural and social discrimination mothers are up against, per above.
And I told them a few more things.
Mothering, breastfeeding, and unpaid care and nurturing is estimated to account for 47 percent of GDP: that’s over 46 billion dollars — and yet, as Marilyn Waring found, it’s not counted. This matters because policy decisions are made on items that count towards GDP. Income from drug deals is counted towards GDP. Unpaid caring isn’t.
“And what isn’t counted, counts for nothing”.
I told them how it makes a woman returning to the paid workforce feel when she sees her occupation of mothering — ‘the most important job in the world’ — not listed as an occupation on job applications. (It made me feel angry and pretty shit. Obviously I used more eloquent phrasing.)
I told them how omitting unpaid care reflected not only disrespect for the occupation, but a workplace culture of discrimination against parents and unpaid carers, that it may even deter women who, unlike me, hadn’t worked for them in the past.
I did a little homework and quoted from their own internal document which wanted to create an organisation-wide family friendly culture, and pointed out the hypocrisy. (I softened the blow and called this ‘conflict’.)
I suggested an option phrased as ‘Parenthood/Unpaid Carer’ be added to the list of occupations. I asked them to contact me when this had been changed. There was no response. Not even a ‘fob off’. Maybe Mum was right. Except I did not feel better — I wanted change.
When A Response Is Change
Fast forward back to this year, 2020. For me, it seems late June to early August is job-hunting time; possibly I’m-sick-of-freelancing time; or maybe more accurately I-want-a-steady-salary-paid-leave-sick-leave-and-superannuation time.
I started an application to the same large organisation. I saw the drop down, and gave it the side-eye. Oh, I remember you, I thought, vowing to ‘go public’ this time. But I didn’t have to.
‘Full-time parent/Paid or unpaid carer’ has been added to the drop down menu of closest approximations to occupations.
I’m taking this as a little victory — because as a feminist of any stripe, you need to count those little, incremental wins. Any steps towards change and greater equity.
First A Ripple, Then A Flood
It starts with a ripple — one day it will be the flood. So write that angry letter, that email, make that phone call. Maybe you won’t hear back. Maybe you’ll be ‘fobbed off’ with departmental letters which slam doors in your face in the most polite ways — I’ve been there before too.
When the only response is change, we win anyway.