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Via Wiki­media Commons

Recent eco­nomic fore­casts left Aus­tralia with a warning: End extended stay-at-home moth­erhood or face eco­nomic decline.

The Organ­i­sation for Eco­nomic Co-oper­ation and Devel­opment, a trans­gov­ern­mental group tasked with mea­suring inter­na­tional eco­nomic growth, con­cluded in March that Aus­tralia would face a labor shortage if mothers with school-aged children did not join the work­force.

Daily Tele­graph columnist Sarrah Le Mar­quand agreed. It’s time, she argued, to ban stay-at-home par­enting for school-aged children.

“Only when the tiresome and com­pletely unfounded claim that ‘fem­inism is about choice’ is dead and buried (it’s not about choice, it’s about equality) will we consign restrictive gender stereo­types to history,” she said.  

In light of a decades-long push for women to elim­inate the stereo­types Mar­quand ref­er­enced, the columnist’s exhor­tation for actu­al­izing work­place equality should come as no sur­prise. What is a sur­prise, and an encour­agement, is the pushback she received from those around the world who still value women’s freedom to choose whether to enter the work­place.

Fol­lowing Marquand’s logic, if women should be equal but fail to achieve equality them­selves, then society should help them realize it.

This logic underpins the approach of many inter­na­tional leaders, who seek to inspire young women to con­sider leaving mar­riage and the home to pursue equality in the work­place. On Inter­na­tional Women’s Day last month, U.N. Women exec­utive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka delivered a speech advo­cating increased exposure to male-dom­i­nated careers.

“Across the world, too many women and girls spend too many hours on household respon­si­bil­ities — typ­i­cally more than double the time spent by men and boys,” she said. “We must con­struct a dif­ferent world of work for women. As they grow up, girls must be exposed to a broad range of careers, and encouraged to make choices that lead beyond the tra­di­tional service and care options to jobs in industry, art, public service, modern agri­culture and science.”

More aston­ishing however, are the voices raised against Marquand’s propo­sition.

“Right on cue, hys­teria ensued with com­men­tators from coast to coast howling in indig­nation at the very idea that the uppity OECD would insinuate Aus­tralia might have a tiny bit of a problem with our female par­tic­i­pation rates,” Mar­quand wrote.

A member of the hys­teria, Aus­tralian tele­vision per­son­ality Ben Fordham, said reading the article made him furious because of the pos­itive impact his wife has had on their two children after deciding to leave tele­vision herself.

“What that does to her career tra­jectory as far as work-life is con­cerned, is so hard. I cannot imagine what that would be like for me, and then I think about the impact on our children that it’s had having her home. I mean, what’s more important? There will be no economy if there are no future gen­er­a­tions.”

Not only do stay-at-home mothers con­tribute to raising the next gen­er­ation, they also con­tribute to com­mu­nities.

“The stay-at-home mothers I know are there, and they’re helping other mothers,” Van­derbilt Uni­versity pro­fessor of law Carol Swain said. “They vol­unteer at the schools, they are the mon­itors on the field trips, some of them are taking care of their parents. They’re actually con­tributing a lot to the com­mu­nities.”

American author Suzanne Venker also argued, that con­trary to Marquand’s assumption, most women do not care about equality in the work­place.

“As long as women with children put family first, fem­i­nists’ utopian vision for gender equality — where 50 percent of women hold top cor­porate and gov­ernment posi­tions right along with men — will never be achieved,” Venker wrote. “The mistake is thinking most women care. The research shows, unequiv­o­cally, that they do not.”

In the face of federal ini­tia­tives and fem­inist leaders telling women what to do with their lives, it is a pleasant sur­prise to see women, and men, who are still willing to voice argu­ments in favor of women’s choice to join the work­place.

Perhaps, the “howling” ulti­mately proves that women reject the notion that equality ought to be defined and achieved for them, rather than proving they don’t value it.  If women have the intellect and the capa­bility of equality in the work­place, as Mar­quand sug­gests, shouldn’t they be capable of achieving it for them­selves?

So keep up the hys­teria, mothers and fathers and believers in work­place freedom. Your voice is a relief because it means women will not be con­demned to an engineer’s office just as they will not be con­demned to a nursery. Your voice means that if women achieve equality in the work­place, it will be by their own hands and merits — not because of expec­ta­tions thrust upon them.

Ms. Mork is a senior studying pol­itics and jour­nalism.