Tag Archives: “work life balance”

Here comes the science part …

10 Feb

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has released a report damning the poor proportions of women at senior levels in science professions.  Quite right too.  It is a national problem, and an issue on which the Leninist question remains: ‘What is to be done’?  As ever, the ‘doing something’ part is where the problems start: how, when and where should we intervene to ensure greater gender equality in science careers?

One aspect of the report which is genuinely infuriating, is the declaration that efforts to encourage females into science at school are ‘wasted’ if women do not then go the whole hog and adopt science disciplines as undergraduates, postgraduates and eventually as highly skilled workers inside or outside academe.  Never mind the structure, feel the process – can you imagine a world where it was said that effort to educate white working class boys at school was ‘wasted’ because they are not statistically likely to end up at the top of the tree? No, me neither. In other arenas this might be termed victim-blaming.  But science is above all that.   The Science and Technology report deserves praise for going on to include observations about rewarding and retaining women as careers progress.

So how do women ‘fail’ to meet their potential in science?  Well, they don’t actually fail so much as find roadblocks on the way.  The report is quite strong in identifying transition points which work against many women sticking at a science career:  such as the unstable short-term contracts which dominate post-qualification ;  the need to publish regularly, which makes no allowance for career breaks – typically taken to have children.  The combination of lack of long-term employment rights and perceived lack of publishing presence over a time period, stymies progression for many early career female scientists.  The report is right to suggest that these issues should not only be examined as women’s issues, and that fathers who have achieved in science should also be recognised as having to reconcile work and family life.  But when the share of females (let alone mothers) in senior positions remains so low (17% professors in STEM subjects) it is clear that the odds remain heavily stacked against women’s life trajectories.  Furthermore, the report is very open about the fact that scientists’ own unconscious bias has a role in appointments, whilst at the same time senior scientists can tend towards a view that their professional standards of objectivity render any recruitment biases null.  Research studies, however, consistently demonstrate that panels will recruit males over females, when the only difference in submitted CVs is the gender identity of the name at the top.

So back to the ‘what is to be done?’ question.  Notwithstanding all the difficult issues already raised – and this report’s own view that it is presenting nothing new – there are some grounds for optimism.  All attempts to quantify the benefits of including women in science at every level appear to pull in the same direction: having women on board improves science produced.  Economically it makes no sense to exclude women scientists because we need a strong and diverse science workforce to produce innovation and wealth.  The government should be interested in women’s participation in science as a rights issue, but even if they are not, there is a short answer as to why they should be: because we’re worth it.


Dark Side of the Moon?

15 May

Wonklifebalance sat down to write a blog about the fact that May 15th was UN International Day of the Family – and yet we don’t seem to have heard much about it.  All the more of a shame, as this year’s theme is work-family balance.  In his message, The UN Secretary General reminded us how lucky many of us are, in that the consequences of a lack of decent childcare are rather worse elsewhere: Affordable quality childcare is rarely available in developing countries, where many parents are forced to leave their preschool children home alone. Many young children are also left in the care of older siblings who, in turn, are pulled from school’. He also noted that ‘Flexible working arrangements, including staggered working hours, compressed work schedules or telecommuting’ are an important part of making work-family balance more attainable, enhancing both working conditions and gender equality.  Amen to that.

However, my attention was diverted by a story that David Cameron has chosen Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd as his favourite album – and all of a sudden the International Family Day seemed too much like the day job, when I could be writing about music instead.  So in an attempt to put the life back into work-life balance and to take up William Hague’s advice that we should all ‘work harder’, it seemed appropriate to write a dual purpose blog.  My first thought on reading of our Prime Minister’s musical preference was that it was just as well he didn’t choose Pink Floyd’s Animals, what with the ‘club tie and the firm handshake, A certain look in the eye and an easy smile’ – aficionados will know it only gets worse from there.  Then, having read a piece in the Telegraph about how he may have demurred from nominating The Smiths album The Queen is Dead, because of the Diamond Jubilee, I wondered what other titles may capture the Zeitgheist.  It’s probably a bit obscure for him, but a niche choice could have been P.M. Dawn, Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross which moves between Notting Hill and the Rose Garden, in the refrain How does it feel to be one of the beautiful? to the ‘less good days’ in Government (Reality used to be a friend of mine).  Several other possibilities crossed my mind, but on the day Rebekah Brooks was charged, and with the Jubilee just round the corner, I realised there could only be one choice: Queen, News of the World.





15 Mar

In sections of the City there’s a word for people who work 9 to 5: they’re called ‘part-timers’.  Want to be rewarded and get home in time to see your kids? ‘Get a life’.  Well some of us (mainly women, surprise, surprise) do baulk at the long hours culture and go about creating a balance in a variety of ways: freelancing, downshifting, leaving work ‘temporarily’ – or, the holy grail, finding a ‘quality part-time job’.

A report out today, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and commissioned by Women Like Us, the recruitment enterprise specialising in part-time vacancies, shows just how difficult it remains to find part-time work reflecting moderate to high skill levels.  Only 3% of vacancies are part-time and pay above £20,000 full-time equivalent wages.  There is only 1 part-time vacancy paying above £20K for every 18 full-time posts.  In other words, part-time jobs on the open market are a synonym for ‘low-grade’.

And the truth is that most higher-grade part-time work is negotiated down: posts that were full-time until someone asked to be retained on reduced hours.  This comes as no surprise to anyone who stepped off the ladder and has tried to find part-time work afterwards.  The commitment issue is the most galling: ever sat in a job interview for a skilled post advertised as ‘part-time and flexible’ ‘with the option of homeworking’ only to meet a brick wall on negotiating hours in the office?  Less committed people would give up and sit moaning at home after they had been told for the nth time that they were the best candidate for the job, but flexibility is on our terms only. Give one person part-time office hours, next thing the whole team will want them.  Perish the thought.  Be the change you want to see is the mantra: it means fighting for every decent bit of work that can be negotiated around family commitments.

Wonklifebalance is the blog of a policy analyst who likes to combine work and family life – the real scandal is that this is so difficult to achieve, and exacts such a high price for trying.  They have a word for this too: it’s called ‘choice’.

It’s your relationships, stupid

6 Mar

The Office for National Statistics has just released the first results of a government survey  into the (often contested) area of happiness – known to wonks as ‘subjective well-being’ or ‘life satisfaction’.

Governments are widely held to be for the economic, material and concrete parts of life: measuring GDP, industrial output, economic growth.  And through measuring these, what do we get?  A picture of ‘how well we are doing’ devoid of social content.  There are those who say ‘keep it that way’ – the last thing we should be doing as the economy crashes is to devote any time to feelings, when we could be quantifying more tangible stuff. The State has no business rummaging around in the affairs of the heart.  However, if we concentrate too much on the material, we miss out the things which give many of us quality of life: caring for children or other relatives; couple relationships; our sense of belonging.  If we have no measure of these aspects of existence, we know a lot about price and little about value – or even values, come to that.

So, perhaps measuring non-material well-being can tell us something about the way we live now. Who in the UK has been found to be the happiest  today?  Women report slightly higher levels of happiness (‘life satisfaction’, ‘feeling happy yesterday’) than men.  Having children in a household is associated with higher ratings of feeling that life is worthwhile.  It is also on this dimension of happiness that women and men differ most – with women scoring their lives at an average of 7.8/10 on being worthwhile, compared to 7.5/10 for men.  Perhaps greater involvement in family life is a part of women’s higher level of happiness; perhaps higher employment rates see more women today feeling fulfilled. However, the survey also measures anxiety, and women remain ahead of men on that measure – (reporting their level of anxiety yesterday at an average of 3.3/10, while men’s average stood at 3.1/10).  Capricious us, more satisfied and more worried than men? Maybe different areas of satisfaction (working life and family life?) are too often experienced in competition with one another.

It’s interesting that the lowest levels of happiness are reported by men aged 45-49. These are not only the years of the conventional mid-life crisis, but also of pressure to provide financially for current and future family needs.  Men today do this in the presence of children likely to be younger and more demanding than was the case for fathers of the same age in the generation above.  And more men aged 45 to 49 now are in relationships with women who are employed and who expect (as they expect of themselves) to have a stronger role in family life, than their own fathers did. The idea of the involved father has arrived: but often the realities of working life and economics prevent its full realisation. More men may now be experiencing the role conflicts familiar to women, albeit more often from the perspective of being locked into employment at the expense of family time.

Relationships clearly have a role in happiness – people in couples are happier than those who are not (e.g. divorced people rate their happiness yesterday at 6.6/10 compared to 7.5/10 and 7.7/10 for cohabitees and spouses). The data also indicate that Londoners feel less happy than those living elsewhere in the UK, even though economic power is concentrated here.

The ONS is keen to describe these measures of happiness as ‘experimental’ and has not as yet conducted analyses which might move beyond factors which are associated with greater happiness,  to look at causal links between social and relationship characterisitics and life satisfaction.  Since middle-aged, male people living in London run the country, it is unlikely that the happiness question will go away.

How to convert knowledge of happiness into effective policy is another vexed question – the mention of ‘back to basics’ shows the risks of political involvement in defining healthy relationships.  Many years ago, the story has it, Madame de Gaulle silenced a dinner party by saying that the thing she most looked forward to in her husband’s retirement was ‘A penis’.  Her husband remarked that in English we in fact pronounce the word ‘’Appiness’.  Early indications are that possession of the former does not automatically lead to more of the latter.

Can David Cameron really learn from Sweden?

10 Feb

You can’t be interested in family policy for more than ten seconds without looking at examples from Scandinavia, where societies have been so successful at creating mass work-life balance.  So Wonklifebalance should be delighted that David Cameron has gone to Sweden to talk about promoting women in business with the Northern Future Forum, a group composed of the Scandinavian and Baltic states and the UK.

However, Wonklifebalance is sceptical.  Cameron visiting Sweden whilst cutting public sector jobs, in-work benefits and childcare subsidies at home, brings to mind a gender version of Gil Scott Heron’s classic ‘Whitey’s on the Moon’.  In the fevered atmosphere of fractured race relations and the civil rights movement, Gil was unimpressed at the US elite’s travels into space.  With working women losing disproportionately from Coalition policies in Britain today, Cameron’s flight to Sweden, where gender equality is written into the constitution and where even single mothers have high employment rates, looks like a similar distraction from events on the ground.

Scepticism is justified on several fronts, apart from the distraction factor.  Cameron asserts that he wants to learn from countries that have been more successful in attracting women to positions of real power, but before his plane had even landed he had all but ruled out legislation as an option for change.  If there is any lesson to be learnt from the major Nordic countries, it is that enforcement of quotas by law has had a decisive impact on the shape of boardrooms:  Norway has been a runaway success in this regard through the imposition of a 40% quota for women on boards of major companies. David Cameron prefers an indicative approach, where the Government ‘encourages’ but business is left to itself – this is not a sufficient or effective policy stance.  If the gender-equal legislature of Scandinavia cannot achieve boardroom equity without State intervention, then any aspirations in Britain will be dead in the water without explicit and legally-binding directives. 

 A second cause for scepticism is that the arguments for enhancing women’s roles as powerful business executives and entrepreneurs is presented as a female-only issue in Britain.  A major reason why the Scandinavians have been comparatively good at creating work-life balance, is because they have recognised that men are also involved.  The presentation to the Northern Future Forum by the Icelandic representative (who speaks from the viewpoint of the historically macho mining industry)  explicitly and correctly states that a vital component of workplace equality is paternity leave. By designing post-birth leave so that it is available in three chunks, for mothers, for fathers and a third element to be distributed as couples choose, Icelanders have ensured that women remain attached to the workplace after birth and that men are fully involved as fathers from the outset: after that couples can negotiate themselves as to how they share the final tranche of leave.  Models in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark are all effective, because in one way or another they oblige men to take time off work in the early days of parenthood – and they pay properly for it.  In Britain, progress on paternity leave has been slow in comparison: at the moment it is too short and too poorly paid for most men to bother with it, and the changes currently proposed to it mean that men only get additional entitlement if their partner transfers the later months of maternity leave to them.  We have got past the point where it is acceptable for women to gain entitlements to benefit via men.  Now, surely, it is right that men’s caring roles should be rewarded independently of the mothers of their children. Without this, the ‘mummy track’ of underachievement in part-time work will remain a major barrier to progress.

A final reason to be sceptical is that the Nordic solutions to gender equal work-life balance have themselves been a partial success.  Although women’s and mother’s participation in employment is comparatively high in these countries, the gender pay gap has not been completely resolved.  This is largely due to women working in different occupational sectors from men:  women choose roles in the public sector, whilst men remain dominant in the most highly paid jobs of the private sector.  Women therefore take advantage of the family-friendliness of the public sector, whilst losing out on the bigger rewards of the private sector.  And this is why entrepreneurial solutions to gender inequalities should be viewed critically: it is only at the top that these options really pay off.  Without job security, affordable childcare and flexibility, the entrepreneurial approach only rewards the luckiest and the most driven, who somehow accommodate very working hours alongside family life.  So making more mothers into entrepreneurs sounds to me like pissing in the wind – and this remains something that only men are really good at.

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