Nativity then and now

16 Dec

… Nothing Wonklifebalance likes better than data and stories, so here are some key elements of the Nativity story accompanied by contemporary statistics. Plenty of food for thought this Christmas season ….


Then: Angel Gabriel tells Mary she is with child

Now: The arrival of 23% of children is announced when parents post their ultrasound scan on social media



Then: Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for the census

Now: 45% of children under five worldwide are not registered at birth, and so at risk of missing out on full civil rights and service provision.



Then: No room at the inn, so Jesus born in a manger in the stable

Now: 93,000 children in Britain are homeless this Christmas; there are over 50 million refugees worldwide, half of whom are children

Sources: ;


Then: Wise men followed a star

Now: ‘In 2011, the US Military Budget topped US$ 900 billion for that year alone. A year later, University of California Davis PHD student Steve Haroz calculated that that’s more than the entire budget of NASA for the last 56 years’



Then: Wise men bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh

Now: Top UK toys for Christmas – My friend Cayla (doll can answer questions when synched to tablet/phone); Skating dolls from Disney Frozen franchise; Xeno the interactive monster; Kiddizoom smartwatch; Transformers Stomp and Chomp Grimlock

Source: Hamleys Top ten


Wishing all readers a very Merry Christmas and hoping for a peaceful 2015 ….

Universal rights and support for children

10 Dec

Zoe Williams has written a powerful piece in the Guardian about possible failures of our government to meet its obligations in terms of protecting children’s rights, enshrined in the UN convention on the rights of the child.

As she observes,  contraventions of these rights would tarnish our international reputation, as well as being a shameful indictment of a situation where vulnerable children in the criminal justice system have killed themselves, and where increasing numbers of low-income families turn to foodbanks to stave off children’s hunger. At a minimum, one of the richest countries in the world should be able to feed its young. I agree with the premise that it ought to be the State which provides a buffer between children and hunger, ill-treatment and destitution, and which acts as the upholder of the rights of children under its jurisdiction.

But the missing piece of the jigsaw here is that the universal rights for children should be reflected in universal support; Zoe Williams is right to say that the discourse around rights has been framed as rights for ‘vulnerable’ or somehow ‘failed’ children and families, rather than belonging to all of us under the umbrella of humanity. But at a national level this has been allowed to happen in a context where State benefits for children have lost their universal coverage. If, as this Government has done, you say that Child Benefit is to be removed from the best-off, you absolve the State of responsibility for all children and allow the ‘strivers’ and ‘shirkers’ stereotypes to tighten their grip. Child Benefit becomes something for children whose parents are ‘lesser’ providers. The counterargument is that in times of austerity we should not be spending Government money on those who can afford a decent standard of living for their own families.

But the role of such universal benefits is not simply economic: it is to bind society in recognition of the costs to parents of raising children and the social benefit to all of us of creating another generation. We can only have an ‘us’ of taxpayers and a ‘them’ of benefits recipients if universality is removed. Universal entitlement costs something: an acceptance that a minority will have some money from the State they don’t ‘need’ – but that is a better price to pay, in my view, than a means-tested approach which says that rights and benefits are there for certain people only, that they are grudgingly given and can be withdrawn. And the means-testing itself costs money of course.

No-one wants children to go hungry, but neither should we create a world where some children are deemed outside of the State’s remit. It is not only poor parents who neglect, abuse or fail their children, but the current regime encourages this view by focussing support on the neediest. We all lose something through this approach. Today is Human Rights Day, with a strapline ‘Human Rights 365’, to ‘encompass the idea that every day is Human Rights Day’. Of course, we only need reminding because of our collective failure to uphold rights for everyone every day. All children deserve State recognition and are entitled to turn to the State for support; those most in need deserve – and are entitled to – a lot more.

An Egalitarian’s prayer for Shared Parental Leave

1 Dec

Our fathers

Who exist not only in the workplace

Hallowed be thy multiple roles

Your children come

And your work be done

At home, as well as in the office.

Give us – some day – a bigger proportion of your daily bread to cover paternity and parental leave

Meanwhile let’s find ways of coping with the debts you will run up

As we have found ways of coping with mothers’ debts up to now

And lead us not into the temptation of thinking no men want this,

But deliver us from gender inequality

For thine are the children too:

The daily mundanity as well as the fun and the glory

For ever and ever

All men (well, at least more than the government estimate of 2-8% take-up)

Macbeth and the art of flexible working

26 Nov

Recently I went to a Parents’ Evening where I learnt (among other things) that my child is soon to read Macbeth. Macbeth’s fatal flaw is ‘vaulting ambition’ which leads him to make some very bad – and bloody – decisions on his way to the top of the tree. (When he gets there he finds the whole wood is moving – a scenario probably familiar to some real-life Chief Executives – but they often get to manage the consequences in less doom-laden ways …)

So Macbeth has something to say about career progression and work-life balance: it can be seen as the ultimate cautionary tale of the costs of getting to the top – it has plenty to say about the influence of spouses, for sure. And it has some great language to lend to corporate malaise: ever felt ‘cabined, cribbed confined’ in the office 9-5? This is the play for you.

I blogged before about the way in which flexible working could operate differently for men and women, with men informally meeting family commitments ‘irregularly regularly’, whilst women often negotiate upfront for the conditions they need to make both work and care practical. Indeed, I was able to go to that Parents’ Evening because husband had ‘left a bit early’ to take care of our other child.

There is evidence that part-time work still raises issues for ambitious people – and that gender still features in this equation. Some retain a view that anything less than full-time hours signals lack of commitment; and those who reduce their hours may fear that this might hamper promotion prospects. These factors seem to have figured in a recent discrimination case where a man successfully argued that a rejection of request to go part-time amounted to discrimination, as women had been granted this option.  Flexible arrangements should be available to both men and women, without ruling out the possibility of advancement. Otherwise we will remain in a situation on workplace inequality, where, to quote Macbeth again, ‘we have scotched the snake not killed it’.

The formal aspects of flexibility do matter – employees must be seen to work flexibly in order for it to satisfy both career ambition and life satisfaction. I’ve talked about Macbeth all through this blog – only the superstitious would keep referring to it as ‘the Scottish play’. Keeping flexible working hidden under informal terms would be a proper tragedy.




Is flexible working the new premarital sex?

15 Nov

Flexible working – is everyone at it but just not talking about it? A new survey from the USA suggests that men as well as women are taking up opportunities to work more flexibly and so accommodate family life. However, a key finding is that informal arrangements work best for men. Only 29% have a formal arrangement that fixes weekly working patterns. Rather than drawing up an explicit contract with their employers, many men get by on being ‘regularly irregular’ with a nod and a wink from a sympathetic boss. So they may not make announcements about their working hours, just go early – perhaps leaving their coat on the back of the chair, lest anyone should suspect them of skiving. Or they phone in to work from home, or make up time in the evenings.

In some ways this is progress – the more involved father finding a way to make balance work when they have a spouse who is probably working too. But women who work flexibly have tended to do it by the book – to set clear ground rules on accepting a job, or to make a formal request to have flexible hours considered. After all, where kids are concerned the buck is seen to stop with her. Indeed, it’s recently been reported here in the UK, that women who make requests for flexible working are more likely to have their request granted than men.

Why is there this difference in the strategies of men and women, and why does it remind me of premarital sex? It’s because of the gendered assumptions about suitable behaviour that underlie both. The informal arrangements at work maintain a man’s reputation as a serious careerist, just as leaving before morning might maintain a nice girl’s social standing when respectable women could not be seen publicly to be engaging in sex before marriage. As long as flexibly working men do nothing so reckless as to go part-time, their place in the rat race is safe: flexibility may be invisible in order for men to have it in senior roles. Similarly, back in the day, as long as separate sleeping arrangements were seen to be made, and no pregnancy occurred, an unmarried woman could have sex below the radar with her reputation intact.

What is wrong with this picture? It’s the idea that flexibly working men and sexually active women each have had to erect a façade of respectability in order to do what they want to do. And of course it’s no coincidence that the system turns a blind eye to men’s behaviour while making women jump through hoops. Whilst everyone tacitly accepted men’s sexual behaviour, women’s behaviour was heavily regulated; now men can operate a ‘blind eye’ solution to work flexibility whilst women have had to campaign for formal regulations to enable flexible working and prevent exploitation – such as unequal treatment on the basis of job description and/or hours. The acceptability of premarital sex was aided by the innovation of reliable contraception, and the acceptability of flexible working has been aided by the advent of personal computing, e-mail and the internet. You no longer need to be at work to do many kinds of work; you can now have sex and avoid pregnancy.

But as with sexual mores, so in the workplace: the gender behaving ‘out-of-character’ – the sexually active independent woman, the family-oriented career man – has to find arrangements to keep up appearances. Do what you have to, but don’t shout about it. Because if you did, let’s face it, everything would have to change …. And where would that lead?


Nordic models and global gender equality

30 Oct

It’s said of Winston Churchill that when he wanted a martini he would pour himself a large gin and think of France (in tribute to the origin of vermouth, the cocktail’s usual other ingredient). I sometimes think that in the UK, policies for gender equality are similarly formulated: write the reform you want whilst thinking of Scandinavia. This usually means Sweden, but with a nod to Finland for education, Norway for wealth, and this week’s much heralded Iceland, for overall gender equality.

In the midst of coverage of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index, in the UK we have paid most attention to our own drop in position. Last year, according to the WEF index, we were still in the Top 20, as I blogged in June when looking at how the World Cup countries fared in gender equality rankings. Now we have dropped to no. 26 in the table – the top 5 are all Nordic, with Iceland at number 1. Meanwhile, in the Guardian, a prominent Icelandic gender equality analyst has reminded us, that in spite of its successes, Iceland is ‘no feminist paradise’. Why not? Well, in short, because gender equality remains to be achieved.

In an index like the WEF’s, you’re presented with differences between men’s and women’s positions on economic, political, health and educational dimensions within countries, rather than levels of opportunity in each of these areas. So countries move up and down the index, depending on how they affecting the gaps between men and women’s circumstances, rather than on the actual opportunities available. Many middle-income nations therefore come high up in the rankings. Moreover, as Ms Rudolfsdottir points out in the Guardian article, the gender gap between Icelandic men and women in terms of life expectancy may not be terribly bothersome, when you recognise that both men and women live to be over 80: there’s a gap, but not at a level where it suggests that there are major failings in meeting public health needs.

In other respects, however, even Icelandic figures show that much remains to be done. Iceland is well-known for having amongst the highest female political participation rates in the world. These are boosted by a voluntary quota system for party candidates – so future success is not written in stone.

And although generous parental leave entitlements are a crucial part of Iceland’s picture of success (they have the longest period of dedicated fathers’ leave anywhere) even these measures have not resulted in abolition of the gender pay gap – although women’s participation in employment is very high at 88%. The gender pay gap in Iceland is around 20%, not dissimilar to the UK’s.   The explanation for this perhaps surprising finding, is that men and women tend to be employed in different sectors. Icelandic men are more likely to enter relatively well-paid areas such as scientific and technical sectors and construction, compared to women’s greater participation in sectors such as social and personal care, and public sector professions in administration, health and education. Other Nordic countries share this characteristic of high performance in terms of retaining women in work, but having a lesser impact on pay differentials between men and women. Gender parity will come when more girls train for professions which command the highest salaries, and/or when ‘caring’ roles attain higher value. There is, indeed, much to do…

As for the UK, we should be concerned that at a time when we are outperforming many other countries economically, our gender inequalities remain: the gender pay gap is, in fact, increasing. Levels of female participation in politics are poor here compared to our Nordic counterparts: we rank 75th in the world in terms of women occupying ministerial positions, and women still account for fewer than a quarter of MPs.

So we need to take a long hard look at the ingredients for closing gender gaps –we still have to find the perfect policy cocktail to produce gender equality in economics, politics, health and education, anywhere in the world. Whilst women’s employment rates in the UK are increasing, we now rank only 48th in the world, according to WEF. The cost of childcare is an important part of the picture: we pay high fees for a fragmented system, whereas universal, state-subsidised childcare is available throughout Scandinavia. Nordic models may not solve everything, but by paying attention to universal service provision and men’s role in the home, they have progressed further towards gender equality than we have. Let’s be stirred to further action, not shaken by obstacles along the way.


Silicon Valley chickens and women’s eggs

15 Oct

When I read on Twitter that egg-freezing was being offered by Apple and Facebook as a perk to women employees, I thought it was a joke. But then I went and looked for coverage and found that it is in fact true. Gender pay gap? We’ve a quick fix for that darling, we’ll give you $20,000 to freeze your eggs so that you can concentrate on your work and compete on equal terms with our male employees in those crucial childbearing career-building years. Yes, we can level the playing field with invasive surgery and new technology – don’t worry about the fact that success rates are hazy, that according to nbc reporting,doctors recommend freezing at least 20 eggs, which means two cycles of treatment – thus basically blowing the entire $20,000 ‘perk’.

Or, for those really ahead of the curve, a woman could freeze one round of eggs at age 25, this would account for the first $10,000 of the ‘employee benefit’, and then there would be a $500 per year storage charge for as long as the eggs remain frozen. Oh happy days! In a reputable news source in the early 21st century it is reported that this may mean that at ‘35, [when she] is up for a huge promotion, she can go for it wholeheartedly without worrying about missing out on having a baby’ . These words are apparently seriously quoted. Perhaps this is because it is a US news source – the wealthiest country on the planet today has no maternity leave, paternity or parental leave – a position it shares only with Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.

Should a woman choose to freeze her own eggs for whatever reason that is one thing. But when an employer says ‘I’ll freeze your eggs so you don’t have to worry about losing out while you climb the greasy pole on our terms’, I think we should all step back and analyse what is happening very carefully.  The first thing I thought when I read about this is that hoary old song from My Fair Lady -‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ Rather than thinking how the workplace might better accommodate parenthood and any kind of ‘balance’ in life for executives of both sexes, they’ve hit on a technological fix to make the status quo ‘work’ for women. There’s a line in that (even less PC than I remembered) song that rings incredibly true to this whole mindset – Rex Harrison asks of women ‘Why don’t they straighten out the mess that’s inside?’ – a view which fits perfectly with the tech companies’ vision of extracting those problematic, perishable eggs to re-insert when ‘convenient’. We have to ask when convenient for whom. There are few words in the Forbes article covering this item which give a clue: the ‘perk’ is offered to women and their male partners; and a few others are cited in the nbc article: ’offering this benefit “can help women be more productive human beings.”’ Is it time to be very afraid? If a man or a company asked me to freeze my eggs I know what I’d say to them …

Meanwhile, back in the land of the ‘level playing field’ I thought that the idea was that we looked at the possibilities that technology offers for more flexible work arrangements, that empowerment comes from combining employment with family life. I thought that the skills we all gain and the knowledge we acquire from the demands of our closest relationships has real value – the kind of value that transfers to the workplace, as we endeavour to solve problems with other people. I thought technology was giving us new opportunities to flex and adapt the current corporate system to incorporate employee well-being and the returns that this brings. That’s what I’d call innovation. But clearly Silicon Valley is way too chicken for that.



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