CLAIRE Cohen in the Telegraph discusses the latest figures showing that 75.1 per cent of mothers are now in work, more than ever before. Cohen writes that this is ‘surely good news, but we need to examine what sort of work these women are doing. Have they been forced to cut their hours to care for their children, as one in three women told the ONS they had compared with just one in 20 men?’
Suggesting that these women have been ‘forced’ to cut their hours makes it seem as if they have been frogmarched weeping from the workplace to perform grudging slave duty to their babies when they would far rather be sweating over a hot spreadsheet. This does not ring true. Indeed, when I looked at the Office for National Statistics report, it notes rather more neutrally: ‘Many parents make changes to their work to help balance work and family life. Almost 3 in 10 working mothers said they had reduced their hours to help with childcare, compared with 1 in 20 fathers.’
Informally, among my acquaintance, the sense is that far from feeling ‘forced’ by societal or employer pressure to cut working hours after having a child, the overwhelming pressure on mothers is to do the opposite. That is, employers and society at large would far rather we outsourced raising our children to someone else as soon as decently possible and continued working full-time. I have never yet met a new mother anxious about imminent employer pressure to reduce her working hours. Quite the opposite: all but the most career-oriented are more likely to begin fretting a few months into maternity leave about whether or not their employer will be willing to let them work part-time so they do not have to be separated from their babies all week.
The Telegraph’s own report on the ONS numbers includes this comment from Maxine Benson, co-founder of Everywoman, an organisation that aims to support the advancement of women in business: ‘Wanting to be a mum should never have to be at the sacrifice of wanting to thrive in a rewarding job. However there are still barriers preventing many women having a career.’
The principal ‘barrier’, of course, is the visceral connection all normal mothers feel for their babies, and their deep antipathy to being separated from them to return to work. There is no balancing comment, even in the supposedly conservative Telegraph, from anyone to suggest that – gasp – many of those women may be cutting their hours voluntarily, because to do otherwise would make both them and their children miserable.
The reality for millions of women in the UK is that the rising cost of living means work is not a ‘rewarding career’ but an economic necessity. For many, the choice is not between resentful drudgery wiping bottoms or an exciting and flexible career juggling, say, journalism with school pickups and biscuit-making while still being able to afford a cleaner. Rather, the choice is between spending long dull days in an office wishing they were with their kids, or else having their home repossessed.
Evidence strongly suggests most women greatly prefer to do some work, but not full-time. The way this is presented in the press – as a poor compromise showing how far feminism still has to go – simply does not reflect the reality of women’s lives.