I got sent the British Social Attitudes survey by a journalist on Monday. The angle was that only 7% of people questioned thought mums should work full time when their children are young. My immediate first thought was why is the question always phrased in a way that suggests that other people have the right to comment on what women should or shouldn’t do. The same question is never asked of men. Are my daughters still going to be dealing with these kind of judgemental attitudes when they start having children?
I took a breath and realised that the survey is measuring changing attitudes: because we are stuck in historic patterns of assumptions about women working, we have to ask the kind of questions they asked in the old days to compare how things have changed. It still tends to sound in the reports like people telling women what they should and shouldn’t do, though.
I have worked full time throughout all my children’s early years because there was no alternative. I have also been lucky to do work that is challenging and enjoyable. Not everyone is able to do that. Doing stimulating, better paid work makes you more likely to want to stay in the game and it is clear from the survey that those with fewer qualifications are more likely to disagree that men should be the main breadwinners. Even so, the fact that I now do more than one part-time job to get greater flexibility means that I am aware it will be hard to get back to the kind of work that I did when I worked full time.
The percentage of women who feel that working part time has affected their career progression is large – just 28% of women in our annual survey said it hadn’t. It is likely that while women mainly work part time due to caring responsibilities and men mainly work full time there will always be a gender pay gap with men dominating senior positions and women languishing in the lower paid positions.
Then there are the women who take career breaks – most of whom, research shows, plan to return to work at some point. Women who take a career break often struggle to get back to anywhere near the level they were at, despite the growing number of returner programmes. Returner programmes are wonderful, but they are still relatively few and small scale. Of course, they can help to change attitudes and skills shortages can make employers think outside the box. NB In my own profession, I have yet to hear of a returner programme and I’m not optimistic there will be one any time soon, given journalism is in crisis despite the fact that good journalism has never been more necessary.
The lifelong impact of career breaks and lack of career progression is huge. Combine that with the type of sectors women go into and the jobs they do in them which are all usually lower paid than the male equivalent. I spoke to a company recently who were trying to get more women into engineering roles. Typically women go into call centre work, with a starting salary of around 15K with little career progression. Men go into technical roles [for which no particular qualifications are needed as there is on the job training]. They get around 22K with a career path stretching out before them.
This is the norm in so many sectors. The thinking behind it is presumably that women don’t need to be paid the same as men because they are just doing work on the side, to supplement male earnings. Which is all very well when there is a male around. Having been brought up by a single mum, it has always been very clear to me that nothing is certain.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.