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Archive for the ‘Employment’ Category

Reading Gaby Hinscliff’s blog ‘I am not a feminist but…’ certainly struck a chord. If truth be told I don’t regard myself as a Feminist, my mental perception is I suppose of bra-burning, men-hating, hardnose career driven women who would hold their hands up in horror at the life I have chosen; sacrificing a promising career in favour of wiping snotty noses, playing with plastic tat and singing The Wheels on the Bus ad infinitum. I most definitely need a bra to keep my ever southwardly disappearing bosoms vaguely hoisted and Emily Davison must have been turning in her grave the election I chose not to vote in.

So am I letting the side down? Despite these transgressions am I a feminist? Maybe I am. I strongly believe in equality and choice. The decisions I have made, be it through career breaks or working part time to breastfeeding my children or being chief cook and bottom wiper have been made precisely because I chose them. The opportunity to work fulltime and devolve child and household tasks to another were there, I simply chose not to avail myself of them. I discovered bringing up my children to be more fulfilling than my career, and my job has become my hobby. For other women the converse is true.  The point is that feminism should be more about women being able to make the choices they want than what those choices actually are. I am eternally thankful I wasn’t a mother thirty odd years ago where maternity leave was routinely began at 29 weeks and the dictates of society would have meant a woman’s career was consigned to oblivion once the umbilical cord was cut. I consider myself fortunate that things have moved on enough to give many women choices that simply didn’t exist a generation ago.

My husband considers himself sympathetic to feminist viewpoints. He sees my role at home to be to bring up the children rather than hoover, cook and clean which is a good thing really as household tasks do not figure largely on my radar. He is a hands-on dad and does his share of chores.  Nevertheless when I challenged him as to whether he would have sacrificed his career in place of mine should I have chosen to return to work fulltime after birth he spluttered and said he was glad that situation never arose. The reality is though that for him to have taken time off or work more flexibily would be near on impossible and viewed as career suicide. For women there is the option of extended maternity leave (that may come with decent renumeration) and the protection of these rights enshrined in law.  My employers might have had the odd grumble when I have been on maternity leave . Should I choose to work more when the children are older I will be supported as it is deemed a ‘worthy’ thing that I have let my career tick over to raise my family. Not so for men. The statutory two weeks paternity leave with derisory pay meaning the majority of men will not avail themselves of this. There is talk of more flexibility with parents sharing ‘maternity’ leave between them but this is yet to come to fruition. Even if these proposals should reach the statute books there is still a whole societal attitude to deal with where childrearing remains the domain of the woman and men who venture into it remain somewhat of an oddity. The pressures, both covert and explicit, from employers, spouses and acquaintances mean it simply is not an option. I think my husband would quite like the opportunity to drop a day a week in favour of family life but unless there is a momental shift in attitudes and economics it will never be a credible alternative. Jim Pollard writes about why feminism favours men but in respect to the work-family balance at least I think I am the more liberated partner, I certainly have more choices.

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Yesterday on International Women’s Day, I thought back to a conversation I had with a friend about feminism and motherhood after reading this article.  It gave me a lot to think about because I’ve spent the last three years feeling pulled between being a feminist and taking the traditional ‘woman’s role’ in our household.

I’ve been the one who has looked after our daughter and most of the housework since she was born.  I cook the dinner, it tends to be more or less ready when my husband walks in from work, I do the washing and I plan our holidays. I never thought I’d be the kind of woman who thought there was any pride to be had in looking after a family, and yet here I am, loud and proud. (I should add here in case Lordblahblahs thinks I am doing him a dis-service, that he more than pulls his weight in the home in the evenings and at weekends).

Badinter’s viewpoint is, in my opinion, naive, and well, bollocks, frankly.  I simply can’t see how taking a few months or years out of work to care for your own children can really undermine a lifetime of education and employment.  As my friend said, if she’s that bothered by women pureeing a bit of butternut squash or changing nappies, why isn’t she instead championing family friendly policies at work, equal pay and better childcare etc.?  I’d go further and say why aren’t we championing the right for men to take equal time off (if they choose)?  Where’s the cultural shift towards fathers working flexibly and, ahem, don’t men have any say in their children’s upbringing?  We can’t just have children and leave them to bring up themselves after all, surely both parents are equally responsible?

Mostly, I want to cry:  why, why, why are the soft skills of looking after each other – whoever is providing the care, and surely the foundation of family life – not given the same value as the more easily measurable skills of who got the best bonus, who has the biggest house, who drives the biggest 4 x 4?

The way I see it, being a mum to pre-schoolers (because that’s all I have experience of so far) is a bit like any other job really.   You can make as much of it as you want.  Some will leave their kids with a bag of crisps for breakfast while they watch Jeremy Kyle.  Others will read all the latest research papers, plan their days with military precision to make sure they are fun-packed, educational and that their kids have nutritionally balanced meals every three hours, with lots of interaction and play in big groups as well as lots of one on one time with mummy.  Most of us are somewhere in the middle.  The vast majority of parents, whether we work full time, part time or not at all, are engaged with our children, we want to give them the best start in life and most of us want our children to be well rounded, compassionate individuals with good self esteem who will go on to contribute to wider society.

Being at home with a child doesn’t mean my brain will rot.  I can still read the paper, I can still do evening courses, I can still *shock* talk to friends about their lives.  Just as I never focused only on my (paid) job, I can still be interested in the world around me and not obsessed with how many phonetic sounds my daughter understands,as long as there’s a smile on her face when she’s happy and she has someone to talk to when she’s sad.

So, I read the papers over the weekend, like I do every weekend, and my word, the world seems to be in a depressing state for women.

First off, only 10% of directors in Britain’s top 100 companies are women and some of them have no women at all on their boards.  None of them have a female majority.

In television,   it’s not just whether you’re a woman or not, it’s how old you are.  If you’re a young woman you might be able to have a soft role in a soap or as a bit of fluff, if you get to 40 and still employed, you’ll be lucky.

It seems even Samantha Cameron and Sarah Brown – both intelligent women in their own right – are seen as extensions of their husbands.  Ed Vaisey has suggested that Samantha Cameron voted Labour in the last election – which she denies, but if true, surely she’s entitled to vote for who she wants at each and every election (I know, I couldn’t do it either, but I’ve heard of stranger differences in a marriage)?  Just look at Sally and John Bercow!

Melissa Kite of the Telegraph thinks that Sarah Brown should be ‘riding her husband to rescue again’, because she is more personable than he is and doesn’t have her own agenda, unlike Cherie Booth who had the audacity to have her own career as well as being married to the then Prime Minister.

Even the good news that Kathryn Bigelow has won an Oscar for directing The Hurt Locker leaves a bitter taste in my mouth – she’s the first woman ever to win a Director’s Oscar.  What???  So we’ve only got another 80 years to catch up!

Elsewhere in the tabs, we read about the Doormat Wives.  John Terry’s wife Toni Poole has forgiven his transgression – from what I can gather, sleeping with his team mate’s girlfriend and paying for her to have an abortion is just the tip of the iceburg for this man’s hideous behaviour .  Cheryl Cole apparently blames herself  for the fact Ashley couldn’t learn his lesson the last time he sent sleazy texts to a kiss and tell merchant.

I read this stuff and I wonder who we are trying to kid, women should have equal rights, but they don’t, and that’s to say nothing about domestic violence, rape, women dying in childbirth, genital mutilation or the many other issues affecting women in this country and around the world.  Nothing has really changed since I was studying A Level Sociology all those years ago (19 to be precise).  What am I going to tell my daughter when she asks me about equality issues?  What is the best way to bring her up to know that she doesn’t have to accept it?  Am I a good enough female role model (she obviously can’t look to television, celebrities, politics or the workplace for examples)?  How would I parent a son? These are the real things that trouble me, as a feminist, Elisabeth Badinter, not whether I remembered to put on a hot wash.

(and I know I sound like a bit of a miserable old bag, so I’ll post a blog later in the week about all the things that are great about being a woman in 2010!)

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Here we go again: Children of working mums are less healthy than those who work part time. To the BBCs credit, they do at least briefly ask ‘what about Fathers’ – but this is yet another judgemental article, castigating full time work, and making assumptions about the type of parenting that goes on. I found the abstract for the paper (and why doesn’t the BBC link to this??), and it is clear that the associations found are very small – and short lasting! By the time the children in the study are school age, no association exists! However, surely what these studies highlight is the need for good quality childcare – rather than yet again putting working mums on the naughty step.

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A third of families use grandparents for childcare, according to the charity Grandparents Plus, often causing hardship for grandparents who retire early or cut their working hours in order to help out. The charity calls for these effort to be ‘recognised financially’ by the government, since free childcare often allows parents to go to work and pay tax where they wouldn’t otherwise be able. It seems only fair doesn’t it? The government encourages mums back to work, but often its not worth it if they have to pay childcare out of their wages.

The Benefits Minister Helen Goodman is reported to have said “However, we’ve made it very clear that we only expect parents to do this during school hours or during the hours they are entitled to free childcare. We absolutely do not expect grandparents to subsidise this work.” What a joke! Many mums of school age kids I know are looking for that elusive ‘school hours’ job and believe me, Ms Goodman, they are not easy to find. It is only having grandparents able and willing to do the school run, or a few hours of after school care that makes it possible to work.

Putting all that aside though, relying on grandparents for child care can be fraught with problems. My own mother doesn’t live close enough to provide childcare on a regular basis, but she does either come here or take our girls at various times to allow me to do work related things. Trouble is, I have a pretty complicated relationship with my mother (who doesn’t?!) and spent my 20s putting some distance, both physical and psychological, between us. All that has gone to hell since I had kids though and I have come to rely on her in ways I would rather not. As is so often true as a parent, I feel I have compromised what I want by choosing what works for my family.

I think many mums are similarly stuck between a rock and a hard place: use their mother (or often worse, the mother-in-law!) for childcare with all those strings attached or not work at all. Even if you have a good relationship with your mum, things can get strained. Its not long ago the news was full of witterings about grandparents contributing to childhood obesity through overindulgence. A friend of mine recently picked her child up from grandma with bruises all up his arm as he had been ‘difficult’. What can she do? She relies on grandma in order to do her job, but she can’t tolerate her beating her child. It’s a minefield.

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UCAS has reported an increase of 23% in applications for University places for 2010. This unprecedented demand in Higher Education comes at the worst possible time for those applying. Last year 160,000 students who wanted to study at university, didn’t get a place. Even so – most universities overshot their recruitment targets by about 5%. University recruitment is a little like shooting an arrow in the dark at a moving target. Universities have to guess how many students will meet their predicted grades, how many will accept the offer from each institution, and they often don’t know how many places they are aiming for until well into August. But it’s a high stakes gamble – Mandelson announced recently that universities would be charged nearly £4,000 per student over recruited – a cost of approx £1 million to the sector. As a result, all institutions are being extremely cautious in offering places this year. To add to the problem, many Universities are actually cutting places, in response to funding pressures. All this creates a perfect storm for the current crop of applicants, who are anxiously awaiting not just their exam results, but their precious university offers.

University funding is being squeezed hard in the run up to the election, in the race to be the first to half the deficit. Nearly £1 billion funding cuts have already been announced. And yet, demand for higher education has never been higher, and Universities are being hailed as crucial in recovery from the recession. With youth unemployment at the highest ever surely it is a better use of tax-payer money to fund students through education, with the life changing opportunities it presents, than to let them squander their time on the dole. This is certainly the view of the NUS.

Lurking in the background of course is the funding review, which conveniently will not report until after the election. This is the report that will determine what fees future students will pay – currently they pay over £3000 per year, and this may rise to £7000, or the cap may even be taken off. I dread to think how much it will cost, in 10 years time, for my children to go to University, and what their experience will be. The current government seem determined to move the UK system towards the North American model, where students can pay up to $30,000 a year in fees.

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The guilt stuff

I am a working mum, and honestly, I pretty much love it. I don’t have any of that guilt stuff you read about, or do any agonising as I wave the little darlings off at school or nursery before dashing off to the office. What’s not to love? You get your own money to spend on pretty little things you don’t really need (or sensible things that you do), you get time out from the relentless drudgery of life with small people, and you get to give your children the unarguably good example of being an independent woman. All excellent.

But, as my husband pointed out when I said all this to him, I’ve got it easy. I work for a firm where every woman – from equity partner to post room assistant – has the option to work part time if they have a child, and where each and every mother has taken advantage of this, so we’re a loose and – for the most part! – tolerant and flexible mix of different hours and term-time-based contracts and flexible hours to attend Sports Day. Personally, I work a four-day week but spread the hours over 5 days so that I can do the school runs and be at home with the children in the afternoons. Before and after the school day, my children are with at least one parent; at weekends we are both at home. In the holidays we juggle and muddle so that at least one parent is at home in the day then, too. This pleases me and given that it pleases me so, I assume that it’s probably more important to me than I realise. It’s definitely more important to me than huge pay rises, for the moment at least.

Given that not all occupations or workplaces are as family-friendly as mine, I can see the logic in the arguments put forward by those who insist that the glass ceiling is created by generous maternity leave provision, not smashed by it. As Alexandra Shulman said recently in the Daily Mail: what employer, indeed, would want to hire a woman who could turn around a few months later and take a year’s maternity leave followed by flexible working thereafter? But what the naysayers forget is that flexible working, part-time working and working from home is still working, it’s still profitable and sometimes more so. I’m not the only part-timer in my firm who makes as much, or more money for the firm than some full-time colleagues (male AND female). But realistically I don’t think things will improve as long as men have the automatic right to opt out of sharing the babycare, as Mary Fitzgerald points out in the Guardian. Increased paternity leave rights and more flexibility for fathers would even things out better than adding to the framework that is already in place for women, in my opinion. Working part-time yet remaining productive shouldn’t be an exclusively female domain, surely?

I would mention that I tried working full-time for a while and it wasn’t for me. I didn’t like not knowing what my daughter’s favourite foods were, and not getting the full gorgeousness of her after-nursery witterings, and not being able to share a meal and some playtime with her before bed. Equally, though, when I was on maternity leave and living the life of a full-time mum I knew that life wasn’t for me either. I can’t be the only mum who needs a balance of both. And I’m sure a lot of dads would like to have the choice.

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When I had my first (and last) child three years ago, Lord Blahblah skipped off on paternity leave when I was admitted to hospital to be induced on Wednesday morning (he may or may not have harboured dreams of writing his first novel, a week-long bender wetting the baby’s head and 14 hours sleep a night – none of which came to fruition). Unfortunately, my daughter inherited the famously tardy gene from both parents and didn’t actually put in an appearance until the Saturday. By then his Lordship had already used three days of his paternity leave.

I ended up in hospital until the next Tuesday, so we only really had one week of getting used to our new family structure. After a traumatic birth, I was hardly able to sit down never mind make myself lunch with a crying baby, when he went back to work after his allocated two weeks.

I was naturally panic stricken. Ordinarily, I’d have been barely able to look after myself with such limited mobility, and here I was with full responsibility for another human being who needed breastfeeding (ouch) all the time, hated being out of our arms and rarely slept for longer than half an hour. I had to brush my teeth, have a shower, make drinks, tidy the flat, keep on top of the washing the ‘real’ nappies (OK, so I quickly learnt to lower my standards, but this was what was going through my mind!) – this really wasn’t what I thought maternity leave would be like!

Obviously, we got through it all, and soon enough I was getting my teeth brushed and getting dressed before my husband came home at 6pm, but my memories of paternity leave are that it all goes by in a flash! So it was with some surprise that I read today that according the Working Families, four in ten men don’t take any paternity leave at all. But then of course, his Lordship works in the public sector and got full pay while he took his two week sabbatical. Statutory Paternity Pay is just £123.06 a week, which even if you’re earning minimum wage is a significant drop in income. Yes, having a baby is an expensive time, and you should be prepared financially, but it’s bad enough one of you having a huge drop in income without the other one (who could technically go to work) giving up some of his too.

Working Families are campaigning for employers to encourage fathers to take paternity leave and Harriet Harman is arguing that parents should be able to share maternity/paternity leave between them. I can’t help thinking of all the babies who are missing out at the moment on the chance to bond with both parents, and the fathers who aren’t given the chance to get their heads around the new addition before being expected to perform as usual at work. And then there’s the mother who may have had a difficult birth experience, be struggling with breastfeeding or keeping on top of sterilising bottles and the torturous lack of sleep and question if it’s any wonder so many of us end up with Post Natal Depression when we get so little support. I have no idea at all how women manage when they have one or more other children to deal with too…

Looking after babies may well have been ‘Women’s work’ back in the day when it was WOMEN looking after them, but most new mothers don’t have an army of grandmothers, siblings and friends coming round to cook meals, hold the screaming baby while you have a shower, give you a hug when you can’t get your baby to stop crying but have run out of ways to calm them down; we don’t have communities raising children anymore.

Parenting takes more than one person and babies and men deserve the right to bond – which takes much longer than two measly weeks. Come on government, put your money where your mouth is, and moany employer, just be glad the average family has just 1.8 children in the UK, surely you can fund this for the future generation?

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