Archive | February, 2015

Giving Parliament and parenthood full attention

24 Feb

When Tory MP Andrew Rosindell remarked that Rachel Reeves’ maternity leave might rule her out of giving ‘full attention’ to her job, he walked into a minefield of gendered assumptions about working parenthood. Ms Reeves already holds high office in opposition with a young daughter, without apparent difficulty; would Mr Rosindell suggest that the Prime Minister’s children prove too much of a distraction from running the country? Thought not.   Presumably he thinks that is what David Cameron’s wife is for – conveniently forgetting that she also works, and that the couple may have other support in caring for their children.   And working men are parents too. The Reeves and the Camerons do not seem to be struggling particularly with work-life balance; indeed relatively high pay and (in Reeves case) access to informal care provided by family members make their arrangements more straightforward than those in many families. In case Mr Rosindell hasn’t noticed, the world is full of working women who happen to be parents.

His outmoded views of how professional women cope with having jobs and children simultaneously, is given added piquancy by the discussion sparked by the Straw/Rifkind sting. A whole debate has now grown around the extent to which it is possible to carry on with other commitments whilst being an MP – to what extent is public office a full-time job? Whilst paid lobbying is out of the question, is it ok to be a doctor or lawyer, a journalist, a consultant on boards, etc.? Does outside experience enhance the House, or is total commitment to the role the only way? Among the questions not being asked are, can men do two things at once? Does fatherhood interfere with public office? Perhaps to help resolve these issues, parliamentarians should ask a busy woman. She’ll make the time and have the skills to sort things out. And then go home and tell the kids about another full day at work.




The pink bus: a politics for her?

11 Feb

The internet is abuzz with reaction to Labour’s pink campaign bus for women voters. It will be used to ferry a group of female Labour MPs around the country, in a bid to address women’s issues in an approachable way.

In fact, the colour of the bus – which is controversial enough, and which has been the chief target of social media ire – bothers me less than the talk accompanying it. The idea apparently is for the Labour notables to go on a ‘kitchen table’ tour – a phrase which does rather suggest that the kitchen is where we women are supposed to be. Granted I love a good political argument around mine, but I don’t think that’s quite the image being conjured up here. Lucy Powell, a senior figure in Labour’s election campaign, is quoted in the Guardian as saying that the bus will mean that the female MPs “have a conversation about the kitchen table, and around the kitchen table” rather than having an “economy that just reaches the boardroom table” ‘.

An economy that ‘just reaches the boardroom table’? – that is just an impossible concept – the economy is created by all the activity of workers everywhere, and boards generally meet to make decisions and decide strategy for the future of whole companies. I’d prefer the kitchen table to be viewed as an integral part of the economy and society, and of course who sits at it most, is part of the backdrop to who makes it to the boardroom. I hope this is part of the conversation Labour will be having.

A Populus poll covered in the FT last week showed that while Labour enjoys a small lead over the Conservatives amongst women voters (3%), mothers of children under 18 are much more likely to vote Labour than Conservative (48% compared to 28%). These figures suggest that Labour has appeal for women, with mothers a key source of support. As over 70% of mothers are now employed, the kitchen table may not be the best place to look for them. Harriet Harman has argued that the bus is part of message showing that women in politics can stand up for women in society, which is a worthwhile aim. But judging by the online conversation, there’s a lot of people who feel that the pink bus is a turn-off, no matter how well-intentioned the focus on women may be.

The issues that have been highlighted as key to the bus tour for women are: childcare, social care, domestic violence, equal pay and female representation. These are all important issues, and yes, concern the position of women. But they also concern men – as fathers, as sons and partners, as perpetrators, as co-workers and as the main holders of positions of power. In packaging them as ‘women’s issues’, there’s a risk that they become more distant from the political mainstream. And if we look at the issues that are high up in the current general election debate – the NHS, the state of the economy, cost of living, immigration, education, EU membership, international policy in defence and foreign relations – all of these impact on women as well as men. In fact, as we still tend to do more of the care work, and are more likely to be employed in the public sector, some of these issues may even affect us more than men. And women are just as capable as men of forming an opinion on issues, which may not, literally, be part of daily life.

Perhaps the pink bus should be credited with getting us all talking about gender and politics, but it might do no harm to remember that ‘bus’ is short for ‘omnibus’ which means ‘for all’. That’s how I, and I suspect many others, like their politics.


Caring values

9 Feb

In an interesting juxtaposition, the headlines have been shared by two stories: Labour’s plan to double the length and raise the pay rates for paternity leave, and research showing that 160,000 workers in the care sector earn less than the minimum wage.

At first the two may not seem related, but on reflection they represent two aspects of the same issue: in our society caring work is undervalued, and rates of pay fail to reflect the efforts and skills of those doing it, or the value to society of the relationships this work builds.

I’m all in favour of men being given more opportunity to take paternity leave and also to share parental leave in their child’s early life – the evidence indicates that this is often a positive thing for families and for gender equality. In Sweden, where men have been entitled to a relatively generous parental leave regime for years, it’s been shown that every additional month of leave taken by a father is associated with a 7% rise in annual income for the mother of his children; and fathers who have taken parental leave tend to see their children more in the event of parental separation or divorce. In Iceland, where men are entitled to not one but three ‘daddy months’ , both breastfeeding rates and mother’s employment rates are amongst the highest in the world. And many point to evidence relating fathers’ involvement to good educational and social outcomes for children.

Labour’s plans for paternity leave may well be a step in the right direction, but they present a few issues as well: they are talking about raising the pay for paternity leave to national minimum wage level, which is a considerable improvement on the current very low rates, but nothing like the level offered in Scandinavian countries, or comparable to many fathers’ actual wages. Furthermore, while this reform would go a little way to making UK paternity leave more affordable, it also poses the question as to whether statutory maternity pay and shared parental leave should be raised to the same level. From an equalities perspective the answer has to be yes; besides, if the argument is that better rates of pay create better incentives to take time for care, it’s hard to see why this changes after the first four weeks of leave.

And these issues of incentives and equalities remind us again that paternity leave is granted in a context – a context of our expectations around, and the value of, care. It seems very difficult to argue that paternity leave should be better-rewarded than maternity leave, even if the economic reality is that men are often better-paid. The gender pay gap is in considerable part a result of attitudes and past behaviour in terms of who does the lion’s share of caring and domestic work. This brings us back to the story about underpayment of careworkers: over 80% of these workers are women. So no matter which phase of life we’re dealing with, and whether the carers are family members or a paid workforce,   the matter of gender won’t go away. Workers in childcare are not notably well-paid either, and also tend to be female. So if looking to give parents a break and to enhance choice around employment and care, it might pay to take a long look at the whole infrastructure of support for families. It’s often said that who dares wins, but the electorate might appreciate a greater understanding that who cares often loses. Changing that might get a few votes.


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