Leftfield attack on rights for working mums?

// 14 July 2008

The Times plastered the story on its front page. Nicola Brewer said that maternity leave is stopping women getting promotions.

Feminist Avatar has written a great analysis of this story, from all angles:

First off, let’s get rid of the idea that women ‘choose’ to work. Women, even mothers, have as much right to work as men. We do not sit around discussing how father’s ‘choose’ to work despite having children, or comment on how selfish or irresponsible they are for fertilising women and then not staying home with the baby. People need to work, women included. Furthermore, the vast majority of women do not have the luxury of ‘choosing’ to work. In the UK, most households, especially those with children, need two incomes to have an acceptable standard of living. Indeed, 83% of married (or coupled) fathers work, as do 68% of married (or coupled) mothers. And many, many households are run by single parents who need to work to survive (although are less likely to be able to work due to lack of support)…

Furthermore, the labour market needs women workers. 50% of Scotland’s workforce is female. 72% of the (working age) female population in Scotland works, compared to 77% of men. Roughly 44% of the working female population have dependent children. The labour market would collapse if women stopped working; it would even collapse if only mothers stopped working. They are vital to the functioning of the economy, particularly in certain areas such as Public Administration, Education and Healthcare where over 70% of the workforce is female. With an unemployment rate of only 5%, there are not enough men to even replace a fraction of the female workforce.

We cannot talk about women working as a choice, because it is no more or less a choice than for men. We cannot talk about women ‘choosing’ between a career and a family, unless your baseline is that all women should work and choosing to have children is the luxury.

Comments From You

Amity // Posted 14 July 2008 at 10:44 pm

Another blogger already said it better than I could.

“Maternity Leave Damages Careers” should read: “Prejudicial hiring practices surrounding maternity leave damages careers.”

Let’s call it what it really is.

Torygirl // Posted 15 July 2008 at 6:16 am

Kira Cochrane also mentioned this in her brilliant article about the current backlash, citing Alan Sugar’s thoughts to just not employ women.

A lot of women, though, DO choose to slow career progression after they have children, though. It’s no good to second guess how you’ll feel in that situation and many, many people feel, with good justification, that if you have children under school age, one person (mother or father) should stay at home, at least part time. At that point, for a few years, ‘career’ becomes ‘work’ and in many cases DOES take a back seat.

The sad thing about it is that it is so unusual for men to let family impact career that there’s a huge fuss whenever they do it.

Sarah // Posted 15 July 2008 at 9:02 am

It’s an interesting angle that’s been taken on this – I heard Nicola Brewer on the radio yesterday morning, and she seemed to be saying that the problem was the disparity between maternity leave (up to 12 months) and paternity (2 weeks), and that the solution was extended parental leave (non-gendered) to be shared between the birth mother and her partner. Not so much ‘maternity leave is BAD!!!’.

Sam // Posted 15 July 2008 at 10:02 am

Amity, “prejudicial hiring practices”? Employers who make an economic decision that it will be more profitable to employ a man than a woman are making a decision without prejudice to anything other than money, which is what you should expect. The prejudice is, as the equality commission (and Sarah) says, not in the hiring practice but in the legislation, which systematically makes women less economically attractive. If you would like employers to ignore this then fine, there’s a good case for that. But make no mistake, it is you, not the employer, who is asking for hiring practices which prejudice economic decisions.

Sarah // Posted 15 July 2008 at 10:53 am

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s OK for employers to refuse to employ a woman because she might need maternity leave someday – I’m just saying it happens.

I also think it would be in everyone’s interest to have the option of sharing parental leave between partners – I certainly don’t want to take a year off work to spend with a baby, but my partner finds it quite an appealing idea, and I’m sure he’d do it very well – why should that be a problem just because he’s a man?

Betts // Posted 15 July 2008 at 10:54 am

We should be careful about our use of the word ‘work’ and clarify that we mean paid employment. Work is “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result”. Bringing up a child is work. As a woman, in paid employment, I would welcome that ‘work’ in raising a child, caring for older and sick relatives, volunteering and actively participating in the community was recognised as work, and valued as some of the most important contributions to society, whether done by a man or a woman.

Qubit // Posted 15 July 2008 at 11:42 am

Of the women I know most are undecided whether they want children or are against the idea. They know it will harm their career and will reduce their freedom and social life to almost nill.

However most of the guys I know definitely want children. Many find the idea of not passing on their genes incredibly limiting and seem to expect it to be their right. Many guys also find the idea of someone not wanting children weird and when discussing this with my previous boyfriends I feel my lack of desire for children would become an issue that I would feel pressured to compromise on.

I find it worrying how many people on the Times message board said they wouldn’t employ a woman between 25-35. I am not sure what the solution is without completely disadvantaging women who do have children.

Giving the option of equal paternity leave is obviously essential for an equal society however most people still expect women to be the primary carer of children. The prejudice in attitude against stay at home dads will enhance this and the majority of parental leave will most commonly be taken by the woman. This still makes women a bad prospect for employers. Is there a solution to this?

Sarah // Posted 15 July 2008 at 11:50 am

Is it Iceland that has mandatory shared parental leave, i.e. both parents must share the time equally? I can’t imagine that going down very well in the UK (imagine the Daily Mail’s take on it!) but it would solve the problem Qubit mentions. Well, to some extent anyway, I suppose it would be no help to single parents, who are predominantly women, so the numbers would be somewhat skewed by that.

Laura // Posted 15 July 2008 at 12:29 pm

I heard Nicola as well and read her comments reported in full elsewhere – have to say this blog post is one bit of her comments taken totally out of context and totally misrepresented – as a fan of this site, I’m disappointed.

What she was saying, as Sarah pointed out, is that changes to parental leave should focus on evening out provision to increase paternity leave and allow couples to split leave between them or take their leave back to back to increase the amount of time a child has a full time carer. Personally I think this is more important and more necessary than increasing maternity leave provision, and will give women greater equality with men – at present, women are forced into being the primary caregiver because they’re the ones who get paid leave. Changing the law would allow couples to make their own decisions as to who takes the leave to look after the child – something that would increase women’s options, and probably also reduce the impact of childbearing on careers and reduce the pay gap. Surely, as feminists, we should welcome this?

Finally, I think most of us (who don’t work for or run small businesses) are a bit blase about the effect maternity leave can have – small business owners aren’t using maternity leave as a cover for their sexist desire to not hire women, they are expressing the fact that maternity leave can be extremely expensive for them. Although obviously we need to retain maternity leave, we do also need to listen to the small business owners (i.e. the people with 5 employees, not Alan Sugar) who are genuinely concerned for profitability – after all, if they go bust, women won’t have jobs to go back to!

Jess McCabe // Posted 15 July 2008 at 12:33 pm

Laura – I think it’s absolutely clear that The Times manipulated what Nicola had to say. Hence question mark in the headline of the post, and link to Feminist Avatar’s post exhaustively going into the issue.

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 15 July 2008 at 12:58 pm

Betts! Thank you!

I put time and effort into childrearing, it’s not always fun and it’s often exhausting, yet many people assume (wrongly) that we sit on our bums and watch telly all day…

Chris Morris // Posted 15 July 2008 at 7:01 pm

The Times headline could just as easily have been “Enshrining stereotypes in law bad for women”, which would have been accurate and avoided the “women; beware of feminists” attitude that that headline had. As with the Equalities Bill, it’s a shame that the the press can’t report sensibly on largely positive proposals.

Sarah: not quite – each parent gets three months leave, and then there’s a further three months that they choose how to share. Norway, Sweden and Denmark also have shared systems to varying extents: summary and links to further details at http://www.equalrights.org.uk/leave/elsewhere

Sarah // Posted 15 July 2008 at 7:34 pm

Thanks for the link Chris – I think I was thinking of Sweden where each parent must take at least 30 days of the available leave, though I have heard the view that it should be obligatory to share it equally. Though again I’m not sure that would work so well in practice, probably it’s better to let each couple work this out between themselves.

I’m also interested to know how this works for same-sex couples. The european laws generally refer to the ‘birth mother’s partner’, but here we have ‘paternity leave’ which is hardly gender-neutral terminology!

Rose_Hasty // Posted 15 July 2008 at 10:21 pm

I was really shocked to discover me and my partner couldn’t share paid parental leave. We are both graduates in minimum wage jobs who planned to start our careers this year. Because we would lose the maternity pay afforded to me if I went back to work it means that we my career development is severely delayed compared to his. We have a fair setup to offset this with our personal finances but my financial independence is screwed. I know a lot of couples who do not offset this unfair financial position mothers are forced into. Furthermore I’ve seen a resentment built up between couples who would like to be very forward-thinking on gendered parental roles but who find that finances force the father out of his nurturing role and the mother out of the public sphere. Naturally they become jealous of one another.

It’s frustrating that so many couples seem ready to move forward but that luxury is only afforded to those in higher paid work.

james // Posted 15 July 2008 at 10:25 pm

I’m not really convinced these benefits actually help the cause of women’s employment.

Let’s be honest: the direct effect of a years maternity leave and the right to flexible working is to reduce women’s presence in the workforce. There are also huge problems with women not re-engaging with the workforce afterwards. I know it’s taboo to mention but some women get a taste for not working and abuse maternity leave by taking it and then not returning to work – or start working part-time, and never return to full-time work afterwards.

There’s no evidence children benefit from having mother’s stay at home for a year, children whose mother’s return to work don’t grow up damaged. It’s also really deeply socially unequal: maternity pay is the only benefit I can think of where we give public money to people in proportion to how rich they are, and the creation of the need for temps casualises the workforce for the benefit of people in secure jobs.

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 16 July 2008 at 7:42 am

James, may I refer you to Steve Biddulph and Sue Gerhardt? There is significant evidence that putting children into childcare with people who do not actually love them increases their stress levels, floods their little brains with cortisol thus predisposing them to stress.

Besides which, if you have kids and don’t rear them yourself, someone else has to. You want your kids raised as you would do it? Do it yourself.

Not returning to work or not returning full time is NOT abusing maternity leave, it’s realising that, with your child actually present in the world, your priorities have changed.

Maternity leave is not like ‘leave’ as in ‘holiday’. It’s hard work, of a different nature. Saying that mothers ‘get a taste’ for it seems to me on a par with accusing those who stay at home with young children of being lazy.

And for that matter, let’s be clear. The majority of mothers who work full time have school age children, which is a world away from having a baby or toddler.

Your comments seem to be denigrating those of us who feel that our presence, love and attention is more important than foreign holidays and flashy cars.

Anna // Posted 16 July 2008 at 8:57 am

A taste for not working? That must be why my mother stopped working when she had two under-5’s in the house. Funny, I thought she was looking after her children..

Shea // Posted 16 July 2008 at 8:02 pm

james— you just don’t really get it do you?

Having children is not a one way ticket to a life of luxury and putting your feet up. Its hard, menial and unrecognised. It damages a woman’s career, her social life, any pension she might have and her job chances once she returns to the labour market. I don’t have children or want them, but even I can see what a thankless tasks this is, made even more so by attitudes like yours. As the above commentators point out– just who should look after the children then? Other poorer women? What about when they want children or should only wealthy working couples be entitled to this? Who exactly will provide the next generation of workers if women stop having children?

“maternity pay is the only benefit I can think of where we give public money to people in proportion to how rich they are” — erm tax cuts for the rich? Incentives for business? Company car schemes? Pensions Schemes? All giving public money to the rich!I expect your focusing on maternity benefit at £120 a week because it is exclusively female (it isn’t even “public money” it comes from national insurance, which women claiming maternity benefit will have paid into). Thats really what the proposals to extend paternity leave hope to combat.

“There’s no evidence children benefit from having mother’s stay at home for a year, ” Theres masses of evidence try the British Journal of Psychology. Or “Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain by Sue Gerhardt”. No one will care for a child like it’s mother or father, because no one has as much invested in it.

“children whose mother’s return to work don’t grow up damaged.”— No but they can show slower rates of development and score lower in IQ tests. Aside from your huge generalisation, the previous point stands, mothers and fathers are the best people to take care of THEIR child. If they can both work and do it so much the better. It is after all a joint enterprise.

“Let’s be honest: the direct effect of a years maternity leave and the right to flexible working is to reduce women’s presence in the workforce.”

Lets be honest, you don’t really give a crap about women’s prescence in the workforce, or you would be for flexible working . If you want more mothers to return to work and combine this with child raising– make it easier for them to do so.

“There are also huge problems with women not re-engaging with the workforce afterwards.”

Yes because it is nigh on impossible for them to do so. The support is lacking from their employers, the government and society at large, as is the range of affordable childcare options.

” I know it’s taboo to mention but some women get a taste for not working and abuse maternity leave by taking it and then not returning to work – or start working part-time, and never return to full-time work afterwards.”

Firstly it isn’t abusing maternity leave not to return to work, they have a legal right not to.You can’t force people to work against their will. If they don’t return to work it is because they are caring for a demanding infant. I imagine they work part time to balance competing responsibilities and compromise their careers by doing so. Its notable how few men are doing this. Lets even things out a bit shall we?

“A taste for not working”?!?! Have you ever looked after young children for a significant period of time? If you think thats not working, then you clearly haven’t.

I can see that you resent women taking this time off. Perhaps when you and your partner have children, you will do the childrearing duties. Something tells me you will be singing a different tune.

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 16 July 2008 at 8:30 pm

What would your ideal solution be, then, James?

Earn Money From Home // Posted 17 July 2008 at 4:01 pm

My wife decided to stay home after our kids were old enough to go to school. We love having her home. She wanted to make some additional money, so she runs her own home based business. I think it is a great solution for moms that want to stay home.

james // Posted 17 July 2008 at 7:56 pm

“Lets be honest, you don’t really give a crap about women’s prescence in the workforce, or you would be for flexible working…”

Just to clarify my point.

People once thought that women take flexible working to help them balance their family and career, and then re-engage with the workforce once children are no longer in the way. That’s the whole argument for flexible working people are making. The trouble is it’s questionable (and is being questioned by academic feminists, though it obviously hasn’t trickled down to the blogs yet).

The fact is women often don’t return to full time work once children are out the way. They work part time because of childcare responsibilities, and continue to work part-time when they no longer have these responsibilites (and often then segue into early retirement). These women are not working part-time because they’re forced to due to a lack of childcare options, they’re doing it because they’ve developed a taste for disengaging with the workforce.

Female doctors are the classic example. 50% work part-time. This isn’t because 50% have caring responsibilities. They begin working part-time because of children, but then simply never re-engage with full-time work once these end as they find they enjoy part-time work. Flexible working causes women to disengage from the labour force. The argument that ‘we need flexible working because we need more women working’ is questionable.

Alex T // Posted 18 July 2008 at 5:02 pm

“There is significant evidence that putting children into childcare with people who do not actually love them increases their stress levels, floods their little brains with cortisol thus predisposing them to stress.” – ConservaTorygirl

Talk about “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. My mother went straight back to work after all three of us were born and I’m glad she did. She was a great role model for us and bollocks to pseudo-science which tries to make mothers feel guilty for working. My sister and I are educated to post-graduate level and are both happily married in our mid-20s (by which I mean we are successful in both our personal and professional lives). My youngest sister is severely mentally disabled so I can’t make the same conclusions about her but then even this didn’t stop either of my parents working full-time and carving out good careers. (Careers in primary education, incidently, so they know about child development). Mind you, next I’ll be probably be hearing that my sister’s learning difficulties are my mother’s fault for working, too… (I’ll pre-empt that: whatever went wrong happened in the womb).

My parents had to work and we had to be looked after by ‘people who did not love’ us. It had no discernible effect on our well-being. As has been pointed out here before, about fifty billion times better than I could say it, is that women should as be free to balance careers and family as men are. Whether parents are male, female, employed, or full-time carers, they do what they have to do. STOP guilt-tripping them either way, I’m sick of it.

Amy // Posted 18 July 2008 at 6:07 pm

James, aside from you making offensive, sweeping generalised statements about how women get ‘a taste’ for not working, you’ve missed the point entirely. Which is: why is it not an equal number of men and women taking time off to look after a baby, then returning to work part time?

I find it laughable that you think women enjoy part time work, and then cite doctors as an example. Doctors earn massive salaries and a part time doctor’s wage would probably be quite a bit of money – compare this to a part time cleaner’s, nurse’s or teacher’s wage. I doubt very much that these wages would give anyone a ‘taste’ for part time work.

Your opinion seems to be a kind of ‘give them an inch and they’ll take a mile’ attitude, and you apply this only to women. What if parental leave was shared, and the onus was on both parents equally to share their work and bring up their child between them? And subsequently, more men started to take part time jobs to fit in the child caring? Would you start bleating on about how men now have a taste for ‘disengaging’ with the work force? I really, really doubt it.

Also – which ‘academic feminists’ are you citing exactly?

And just by the way – when my mum had me at 31, she had been doing various bits of jobs and didn’t have a career as such. After I had started school, she went back to college, qualified, went to work full time and built a good career for herself, and is still not retired at the age of 60. So much for part time work segueing into early retirement…

Eleanor T // Posted 18 July 2008 at 8:29 pm

Conservatorygirl – “There is significant evidence that putting children into childcare with people who do not actually love them increases their stress levels, floods their little brains with cortisol thus predisposing them to stress.”

Shea – “There’s no evidence children benefit from having mother’s stay at home for a year, ” Theres masses of evidence try the British Journal of Psychology. Or “Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain by Sue Gerhardt”. No one will care for a child like it’s mother or father, because no one has as much invested in it.”

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! I am said 20-something sister of Alex T and Conservatorygirl and Shea’s comments are about the least helpful things I’ve read on here so far.

A child’s development is affected by stimuli, care and attention, all of which can be obtained from a well-run childcare facility. If a parent feels resentment towards their little bundle because they’re forced into staying at home to look after them, wouldn’t that child be better suited to an environment which is stimulating? The parent would then be free to spend quality, loving time with their child resentment free.

Now, please don’t say “If they didn’t want to stay at home, they shouldn’t have had a child”, because we all know looking after children is hard freakin’ work and often mind-numbingly dull. I for one intend to return to work after giving birth and will spend quality, resentment-free, guilt-free time with my babies. I live in America now, and will only be entitled to three months UNPAID maternity leave. My husband is entitled to the SAME, although we obviously won’t be able to exist for the same three months without salaries. For this reason few fathers ever take their full Family Leave entitlement.

As an expat from afar, I think Nicola Brewer’s ideas are ace. Share the leave, share the responsibility. If fathers don’t have to choose between children and a career, why the hell should mothers?

Like Alex T said: “STOP guilt-tripping them either way, I’m sick of it.” Well put, big sis!

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 18 July 2008 at 10:22 pm

Well that’s lovely for you both, but two people is not enough to make a societal pattern or any meaningful observation about a general phenomenon. Much as I hate to say it, it’s anecdotal.

I could just as easily say that me and my sisters are really badly adjusted because our mama went back to work when we were just a few months old and that would carry no more weight than what you’ve just said.

Speaking also as the child of teachers (well, teacher and educational psychologist) I can understand how much you absorb in the home when it comes to child development but that doesn’t mean you know it all or have read the relevant research.

Obviously that touched a nerve for you and, as I said already, it’s not a good idea to try to anticipate how you’re going to feel until you’re in that situation. When are you due?

On the next point, well-run childcare facilities can be very good, although no real substitute. They are additionally something only afforded to the affluent as the fees of such places could easily swallow up a lower-paid worker’s entire income.

When the choice is work and have no money because you hand the whole lot over for someone else to look after your child or don’t work and don’t have the money in the first place but get to raise your child yourself, it may not be such a clear choice.

Yes caring for children is often hard work and dull but why does that mean you shouldn’t do it? I’ve read that basically as you saying that you think you’re above work that is hard and dull. That, of course, isn’t the only side to it. It’s immensely rewarding and exciting.

And Amy, I think he’s talking about Rosie Boycott, who is well known if not an academic feminist.

I also think it’s worth saying that just because someone is an academic doesn’t make what they’re saying right.

Alex T // Posted 19 July 2008 at 1:40 pm

ConservaTorygirl, I think you’ve missed what Eleanor and I are trying to say: whatever the science, whatever people’s personal experiences, parents simply do what they have to and are able to do. They shouldn’t be made to feel bad for their choices, whatever they are.

Bex // Posted 16 February 2009 at 3:30 pm

I am a ‘working mum’ of 2 still of Nursery age. As Jess states, I do not have the luxury of choice to be a ‘stay-at-home’ mum. We need both mine and my husbands income to sustain our living.

The Government are encouraging and wanting women to return to work after having children and making it more difficult not to.

When my children are sick, they cannot attend Nursery for 24 hours eventhough I still have to pay for the days they don’t attend.

I lose pay from my employer for the days I have to keep my children at home and not go into work.

I was once offered the option of using my holiday leave to cover for the time off when my kids were ill. When I told my boss I didn’t think this was fair, the reply was: ‘from the company’s point of view..it’s not the company’s fault you’ve got kids’!

I do my job very well and if my children can’t go to Nursery,I always try to see if someone else (a family member) can look after them as a first option to taking time off work (then suffer the guilt of not being there for my children when they need me the most, or feeling I’m putting work before my children)

I didn’t have the priviledge of 12months maternity leave. Children develop the most in their first 5yrs and what they have in-put into their lives during those years effects OR affects them for the rest of their life.. there are pros & cons to kids going to childcare facilities.

My children’s Nursery is fantastic and has deffinately benefitted my children in socialising, pre-school learning and such, but there are also down sides, which might sound personal and emotional but feel are of equal importance between mother/parent and developing child, such as, first steps, first words, first painting, first wee on the potty!! May be only the parents will understand .. that those things should be shared and cherished between parent and child, not child and Nursery member of staff.

My youngest is 2 and so I have already missed out on so much, (not out of choice) of those intimate, special moments.. shouldn’t that be my right and priviledge as a woman and as a mother and as a person with children who has to go to work?

My husband would gladly share the load of childcare and has done and does, but is in the same boat as me-if he were to have time off due to our children being sick and unable to go to Nursery, he would also lose vital income.

My husband has missed out on more of our children’s development, growing, special moments than I due to his longer working hours.. I’m sure – given the choice, he would also love to have taken days off work or even, not to work at all in favour of ‘family’ time.

How many of us wouldn’t choose recreation over going out to paid employment!?

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