What working mothers need
Some new Cambridge research has suggested that support for women’s equality in the workplace could be on the slide. This is not the usual sort of working mother scare story (“Recent research from the University of Poppleton suggests that babies who are not in close contact with their mothers for 23 hours out of 24 are likely to have lower IQs/ be prone to childhood cancer/will turn to crime . . . .<fill in your own nightmare>”). This is work on social attitudes. There is, as the research leader puts it, "mounting concern" amongst people at large that women who work full-time do so to the detriment of family life – and of themselves.
Surprise, surprise, I found myself thinking. As usual, with social reforms, you cant do it on the cheap. The solution isn’t to encourage mothers back to the kitchen. If you really think women have a right to the same career opportunities as men, and to expect promotion on the same terms, then you need to put money into it – and into the childcare provision and other forms of support that can make it possible.
It’s pricey. But so what? The women don’t get themselves pregnant, do they? Why should the impregnators get off scot-free?
A university career has often seemed relatively easy to combine with kids. The hours of work may be longer than in many other jobs, but there is a certain flexibility to the working day which means that you can plan around the visit to the doctor or the school play. And many universities have reasonably generous maternity-leave schemes.
All the same, my own memory of the first few months after our children were born is of hours each day on the road, driving between home and work to breast feed the baby. At the time it felt heroic. In retrospect it seems crippling – and, just as the public now seem to think, detrimental to ‘family life’.
The current flavour of the month is to offer ‘returning women’ part-time work or various sorts of flexi-time. This fits nicely with the idea of women as residual home-keepers. And it’s an absolute bargain for the institution (what part-time worker doesn’t end up doing more than the share she’s paid for?). For women’s job success, on the other hand, and for their career progression, it’s often a disaster. Every university can roll out some paragon who won a Nobel prize (vel sim) after taking 10 years of part time work while raising her four nippers. But while publication remains the centre of most university promotions procedures, for most women part-time work is likely to be a blight on career success. Even for those keeping on full-time, it’s very hard for a woman to continue writing books and articles at the same rate through pregnancy and a kid’s early years.
Many men are sympathetic, but I suspect that deep down a lot of them don’t quite ‘get it’. When I was on maternity leave, male colleagues would often say “oh are you on leave again?’ – as if I was on sabbatical. And now, when I really want to test them out, I try suggesting that women in their promotion applications should be credited with an extra book for each child they have had. That usually makes them go decidedly pale.
But the bottom line is that – as with all social change -- being really fair to women in the work place is always likely to have costs for men (whether that’s in terms of house-work, nappy changing or promotion). If it doesn’t, then it’s just lip-service.