Why does the 'female juggler' still make headlines?

Women have long been the professional jugglers

Women have represented the archetype of the juggler, masters at multitasking at home and in the workplace for decades, writes Prue Gilbert. And yet the female ‘juggler’ still makes the headlines. 

 ‘Men and women won’t truly be equal…unless men, too, are saying how can I juggle two careers?’ – Gloria Steinem

There’s a Wendy Heath painting in my parents’ home depicting what I like to think is a woman capable of anything, oozing sensuality.

Perhaps Heath drew inspiration from the first ever cover of Gloria Steinem’s Ms Magazine, an adaptation of the Hindu Goddess Kali, tears streaming down her face while she uses eight arms to juggle an overabundance of work and domestic tasks, a baby bump growing from within.

Make no mistake about how these images represent women: the juggler is formidable.

Juggler is a term that I’ve long claimed with pride. My ability to play a number of roles is central to my identity: wife, mother, entrepreneur, lawyer, sister, daughter. Each one of those roles means something different to me and fulfils me in its own unique way.

This year, I was surprised to see, however, the re-emergence of the concept of juggler in mainstream media, 45 years since it was featured on the cover of Ms. Magazine, to sell a vision of a woman who could work and care.

With women making up almost half the workforce, it’s baffling that the female juggler still makes the headlines. Why is it news when a female lawyer is promoted to partner while pregnant or on parental leave? Why is this not the norm?

Bias at play

When we see these images in the news, it sends a message: you can make it to the top, if you really want to. While that might sound empowering, I find it quite the opposite.

Such a discourse places the burden back on women to fit into a system designed for men, by men, rather than addressing the inherent ways in which women are excluded from the system.

The battle for affordable, quality childcare, for adequate paid parental leave for men and women, and for true workplace flexibility where roles at all levels can be redesigned to be part-time, and where pay is pegged to the role not to the person, is yet to be won.

Unfinished business

Its long been assumed that gender equality will be addressed as part of generational change – that millennial attitudes about equality will mean more women will make it to leadership, and more men will share the care.

Yet a recent survey of 6000 Harvard MBA graduates suggests that’s not the case: Only a quarter of female HBS grads between 26 – 31 say they expected their partners’ careers to be more important than theirs, but half the men surveyed expect their careers would take precedence. 42% of young women expect to carry the lion’s share of primary childcare duties, but two-thirds of men expect that their wives would be primary carer.

For as long as women shoulder the burden of childcare and domestic responsibilities, and just 6.3% of managers work part-time, those seeking to combine care and career will be the exception in leadership.

This International Human Rights Day, we reflect on Article 1 of the International Declaration of Human Rights which states “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

Ultimately, that’s what Grace Papers is about, to address the unfinished business of the suffragettes and feminists who came before us and delivered us so many hard-won freedoms.

To challenge the gendered expectations, we need government and workplaces to recognise the benefits to our economy and workplaces, and create policy that incentivises the change we need. But whether you’re man or woman, girl or boy, freedom doesn’t exist if you don’t use it.

So use the one power you do have, and choose your partner wisely.

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