Do we really know what women want?

Petaling Jaya (The Star/ANN) - One of the earliest stories I wrote in The Star after joining the newspaper was titled "Lending a voice" which was published on Oct 10, 2001 in Section Two (as Star2 was called then).

My opening line was, "I support feminism because I support bra-burning!"

But it was just to grab the reader's attention because the essence of my article was about women's rights, especially at the ground level. Furthermore, this mental picture of the militant feminist ripping off her brassiere and flinging it onto a bonfire is absolutely a myth handed down from one generation to another.

I felt I had the credentials to comment about what women really want because I had, in two stretches covering a total of six years, stayed at home to bring up my two boys.

Those were interesting times indeed. And, by far, still the most meaningful years of my life.

Since last Thursday was International Women's Day, I decided to reread what I wrote more than 10 years back and see whether the observations I made back then still hold true today.

There is no doubt that women are everywhere today, occupying high positions in the corporate and political worlds. They are holding their own and giving the men a run for their money.

I had lunch with the senior management team of a bank helmed by a woman recently. Women power is apparent in the organisation judging by the number of top positions held by the fairer sex.

What was interesting was that while the CEO was talking high finance with my colleagues, her senior managers, all women, were more interested to talk home matters with me.

For a while there, I thought I was the character played by Mel Gibson in the movie, What Women Want, because I could easily understand the struggles they were going through in juggling between family and career.

One of them remarked, "I must send my husband to talk to you." But that is only one side of the equation. She must be brave enough to challenge the system that is still stacked against women who work.

From the income tax rules to immigration procedures and many government departments, there is an automatic assumption that only gainfully-employed men exist.

I certainly had a lot of fun convincing the tax officials back then that my wife was drawing an income, and I was not.

In most companies, benefits accrued to male executives (for example, medical benefits for their wives) do not apply in reverse.

Women's groups applaud any move to increase the number of days for maternity leave but very few dare to advocate for radical measures to increase paternity days as well.

Okay, it is unlikely that my better half will surprise me, like Sarah surprised Abraham, and conceive at her current age, so I cannot be accused of having a vested interest here. But why can't fathers be given the same number of days off as mothers when a child is born?

In the public domain, men (including our MPs) may look cool when they support women's rights. But what about the home?

The demands that we men place on women can be quite ridiculous at times. Why don't we wash the laundry, take the kids out to play or cook dinner, for a change?

Because I did all that when I was at home, I still do my part now even when I am back in the workforce. And I am glad my two boys have grown into two fine young men who do their share and know what I am talking about. I expect their future wives to give me some credit for this.

In my article back then, I wrote, "Perhaps in times past, when the women stayed solely at home, a case could be made for them to be fully responsible in these areas, but times are different now.

"We men need to break down walls and get rid of our prejudices. We need to be at the forefront of ensuring that our better halves get a better deal. That way, truly the two shall become one."

The two-income family is already well established. But compared to men, women still have a rough time hacking it out in the workplace and the home.

Men can manage multi-billion companies but they will be at a loss when we appoint them to be CEOs of their own homes.

Yes, there are now more men who are doing their part to be real partners at home but their numbers are still small.

Today, we men still lack understanding on serious issues like spousal abuse, child (mostly female) prostitution, custody rights, inheritance issues, sexual harassment, etc.

So, have things really changed?

Deputy executive editor Soo Ewe Jin, being the only brother to eight sisters, probably got his early education on women rights through his growing-up years.

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