Women with young children suffer more discrimination at work than any other group, a government-commissioned report concluded yesterday. It was not a finding that would have surprised any working mother. Take a very personal example: I was rung at 11.10am yesterday by a G2 commissioning editor asking me to write this piece. "Ye ... es," I said, and she heard my hesitation. What was going through my mind was that rapid, computer-like calculation as to whether the assignment would make me late home and leave any of my three children stranded. One was at the childminder - who could work late. Another was at a friend's and had insisted I pick him up at a certain time - he could lump it if necessary. The third, aged 12, might have to hang on "home alone" with a jam sandwich until I could get back.
Tedious personal detail? Perhaps, but it's exactly the kind of tedious detail of which motherhood is generally made. At the same time, to most employers, my hesitation would be marked down as not-so eager, not-so flexible. In so many professional worlds, where such characteristics are the essential engine oil of career development, women - and it is still largely women - who have to make such calculations end up being imperceptibly sidelined, shunted on to well-defined "mummy tracks" (if you're lucky) or eased out of the company altogether. Imagine the lawyer who hesitates about taking on a big case because it will require 60-hour weeks or frequent travel; the supermarket supervisor who decides not to become a manager because it involves working long hours; the teacher unsure about stepping up to a headship because of a sick child at home. This is how careers are destroyed.
These kinds of working women will still find paid employment, but for the vast majority, the pram in the hall marks, at best, a plateau in their career - treading water - at worst, its abrupt end. And in today's labour market, you don't get a second chance: very few women who take a break manage to pick up their careers after a family. After a generation of revolutionary change - 55% of women with children under five now work outside the home, compared with 25% in 1975 - what yesterday's report from the Equalities Review, commissioned by Tony Blair, helps to highlight is that the sheer number of women in employment has not solved all the problems. In fact, it has created a new type of inequality - a tiered workforce in which mothers often find themselves at, or close to, the bottom in every type of workplace.
The revolution in women's roles has failed to transform two vital elements. First, it has singlularly failed to change the total-dedication, 24/7 male model of working which is still seen as crucial for career development in your 30s and 40s. Second, it has failed to shift expectations about the active involvement of men in the home. There is progress here, but it is painfully slow.
The result is that working mothers are left with the worst of two worlds. They can have jobs but rarely careers. They are frequently trapped in work which, while it may offer some degree of flexibility (part-time or term-time working, for example), is lower paid and with little chance of career progression. At the same time they are still expected to meet the traditional expectations of being a mother - available and attentive to all the family's wellbeing. It's not just the question of managing competing priorities, it's a question of living with that sense of never doing anything to the best of your ability. You are haunted by two ghosts - the better mother you could be, and the better employee. You watch your male peers' careers soar, even as their wives have children; you glimpse those calm mothers at the school gate who aren't jabbering into their mobile phones while distractedly picking up their children. For the many women who have spent their youth thriving on workplace competition, this is an unfamiliar experience.
For some women, these ghosts of other selves become demons. They are the ones who give up brilliant careers to do poster paint and cake-baking full-time; those who work so hard they rarely see their children; or those who decide children and compromises at work are not for them, and don't have a family. Perfectionism has often been the driving force of their brilliant achievements, and coming to terms with second best can be so painful, they'd rather not try.
Opting out of the work-struggle is a draconian option, and one only available to those with partners earning enough money to keep the whole family. More common is the woman who opts for a job that is well below that which she is qualified to do - 50% of employees in part-time work are working below their skill levels. And they pay a heavy penalty in terms of pay - the gender pay-gap for full-time work is 17.2%, but for part-time work it is a whopping 37.6%. This is an area where government policy has failed; the right to request flexible working, introduced in 2003, may have hugely opened up the opportunities for part- time and flexible working, but it has failed to improve the quality of that part-time work.
None of this, of course, is anything you notice or care about before your baby arrives. The glass ceiling is something that women bump their heads on only after emerging from the maternity ward. Nothing prepares you for parenthood, according to the cliche, and certainly nothing prepares the young, successful working woman for the painful realisation, as she hits her 30s, that this is the decade in which she's expected to do two completely contradictory things: start a family and at the same time shift her career into the highest gear if she is to win the biggest prizes. The 30s is a decade of brutal reckoning for many women as they are forced to recalibrate everything they have been told since they were children - yes, they can achieve anything they set their minds on, but at a cost that no one ever spelt out to them. How large that cost is depends entirely on the individual woman, her own understanding of motherhood and the kind of engagement she wants with her own children. A few working mothers resolve that conflict to their own satisfaction; the vast majority live uncomfortably with an internal dialogue of self-doubt.
What is particularly disheartening is that motherhood and work are probably getting harder than ever to reconcile because of broader changes in British working life and social trends. Work has become more unpredictable. The kind of sudden deadlines that are typical of journalism are now symptomatic of a wide range of professions.
Blackberrys, mobile phones and the internet have all accelerated the pace of work. Many jobs involve complex, competing priorities and a huge amount of networking within and between organisations. Meanwhile, we have less support to fall back on. My husband usually does the school pick-up. If he's away, I have no family or even neighbours to call on. Because I work, I can't repay favours so am apprehensive of calling on friends. Those traditional networks of mutual cooperation have crumbled.
At the same time, parenting has risen up the political agenda as a key area of social concern. Just as work has intensified, so has parenting: expectations are much higher. An earlier generation of parents was happy for their children to play outside in the street unsupervised - "benign neglect" was a serious parenting principle. Now huge parental investment - both emotional and financial - is expected.
In this complex picture, if only one detail falls out of place, it can mean disaster. A sick childminder, a sick child, a dentist appointment: all mean cancelled meetings for career parents. There's no give in the system; no wonder one expert talked of dual-career families being a "controlled experiment in chaos". When a child develops a chronic health problem, the chaos is evident to all.
Given all these issues it is hardly surprising that many women end up - typically a few years into the child-bearing process - scrutinising very carefully their own motivation for wanting demanding careers. They weigh up the excitement and thrill of an adrenaline-fuelled career with the satisfactions of intimate emotional engagement with their children, and while many want a bit of both, most are very clear that if the two come into conflict, it's the former that may have to give. Also weighed into the balance is the relationship with their partner and here again, change has not been as deep or widespread as it sometimes appears - as some women will admit, many men's support for their careers is at best half-hearted, and surprisingly often hostile, precisely because their own commitment to their careers depends on the woman holding the fort at home.
Keeping families together, relationships intact: it's these kinds of personal decisions that the Equalities Review (and much of government policy thinking) doesn't acknowledge. The stubbornly slow progress of women in many areas of public life is not just a story about discrimination, but also about how women choose to invest their time and energy - and the fact that these choices can be enormously beneficial to society in terms of the healthy emotional development of children, and increasingly, the care of elderly parents. It is only by giving proper recognition to the value of such caring contributions, that there is any hope of distributing the care burden more equally between men and women - the real pre-condition of a better deal for women.
Read the full article, with case studies, as it appeared in The Guardian by clicking here
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