Thursday, 20 March 2014

Women's work is never done

The new childcare giveaway announced by the Government this week is not, I think, a victory for feminism. In fact it may signal a major capitulation in the battle for gender equality.
As a major step following what's been a gradual change in the workplace over the last 20 years it's actually a disappointment because, amongst all the trumpeting about 'helping families', are two distasteful conclusions:
Firstly, that society values any, yes any, type of paid work more than caring for your own children.
Secondly, that looking after kids is still, largely, women's work.
Two prominent speakers on the BBC over the last couple of days have (probably unwittingly) underlined this.
Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said in a post-budget discussion on BBC2 that the £2,000 childcare subsidy would mean 'parents are not forced to stay at home to look after their children'.
'Forced', he said  - with all the negative connotations that word carries, as if spending time with your kids is the last thing you'd want to do.
In fact, parents are being 'forced' to go out to work, because there is no help for anyone who's already financially the poorer by giving up their wage to stay at home. This latter point was raised by Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, who unfortunately used the phrase 'stay-at-home mums' in explaining the detail of the new subsidy.
I don't know if Nick was just unthinking in failing to say 'stay-at-home parents', or was simply recognising a truth, because if one parent gives up or cuts down on paid work, it's still usually the mother.
And when childcare is outsourced - as the new subsidy is designed to encourage - it's overwhelmingly handed over to females working in the growing childcare sector and who, in the main, are not paid very well. So, while mums are spending less time with their kids and more hours in the office, the children are still being brought up largely by under-valued women. Plus ca change...
I have never believed that 'a mother's place should be in the home' any more than a father's.
And I think it is a fantastic advance that employers are now obliged to be family-friendly. No-one, 22 years ago, offered me part-time or flexible working after my maternity leave, even at the large and progressive organisation in Fleet Street where I worked. Voluntary redundancies, however, were being offered by my employer and, after 17 years of continuous working, it seemed a no-brainer to take a partially-funded break.
Actually, I found caring for my son as valid and as interesting as looking after reporters' grammar, spelling and syntax, and I don't regret doing that.
But I'm relieved that the rigid 'Peter and Jane' model of Daddy at work and Mummy always at home has softened almost into non-existence.
What we've now got instead, though, is Daddy and Mummy both at work and Peter and Jane at the nursery.
Can you see who has done the adapting? Everyone except Daddy. Not necessarily his fault, but the culture surrounding fatherhood has failed to evolve to the same extent as that of motherhood.
Why haven't we reached a position where sometimes Daddy is at home while Mummy is at work, and vice versa? I'm sure many fathers would welcome this, and shared parenting is more usual in some Scandinavian countries, but our governments and employers are failing to encourage it. Rather than opening up opportunities for men to be at work less and in the home more, they're encouraging a new status quo where often neither parent is at home.
After all the so-called 'progress', it's just different women who are changing the nappies and wiping the noses. Dads, it's now time for you to stand up for your rights. 
  • With apologies to the 'Peter and Jane' Ladybird reading books. But none to Danny Alexander.

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