Monday, 10 April 2017

What's Stopping Women?

Jess Phillips MP writes in the Huffington Post here today about the things that support women's ability to be fully active in the workplace. She was a child of the 1980's and took advantage of maternity and paternity leave, tax credits, free nursery places, nursery vouchers, Sure Start, children's savings accounts, care workers, attendance allowance for the elderly, hospice services and NHS services. This is the kind of practical support that is vital if women are to make sense of their lives as workers with family responsibilities. Just as important is a community of mentorship and proactive encouragement to be fully engaged beyond home and family. The full use of women's skills to increase productivity in this country can only, she argues, become a reality if there are moves toward an infrastructure of care and toward 'industrial strategies' that take seriously the shape of women's lives.

This Woman Can; 1997, Women and Labour
Published 10th April 2017, Fabian Society
Fabian Ideas 643

I'm thirty years older than she is and have no children. I've worked all my adult life, usually at more than one job at a time and with occasional forays into education and trusteeship alongside work. I've seen things improve dramatically in terms of women's pay and access to mid-ranking, medium-income jobs. I've witnessed an increase in access to child care but always with the impression that there is not nearly enough to go round and that what there is often uses up an unmanageable proportion of parental income. I've experienced amazing care-of-the-elderly and end-of-life-care services. But it has been a battle and, even for me, without children, has at times been almost impossible to negotiate.

One particular phase perhaps illustrates the kinds of balancing act required. I was Rector of a busy parish for a number of years during which time my mother became unable to cope in her own home, five hours drive away, and my husband went down with a prolonged and serious bout of pneumonia. In between fitting in funerals and weddings, I managed, with five days leave, to close up my mother's house 260 miles away where my parents had lived for 35 years and find and furnish a warden-aided flat for her near to us. Traumatic is not the word for it! All the time my husband was so ill at home he could scarcely get out of bed, never mind look after my mother, and we were totally dependent on the wonderful care workers who came in to look after Mum - all arranged within 24 hours in a city where she had never been resident. That was in the early 2000's in Nottingham.

My partner and I have coped with sudden deaths, slow terminal illnesses at home, accidents in the family and working in different cities at full time, demanding jobs with long hours. I have no brothers and sisters so responsibility for elderly relatives has not been shared with anyone. I have to say that I don't know how people with children do it! Undoubtedly, without the access to social care and the support of equipment and workers we have not had to pay more than a contribution for, we could not have done it. It has sometimes felt as though we have had five jobs between the two of us!

We've tried very hard not to make heavy weather of facing our responsibilities and we haven't seen our roles as sharply gendered. However, I have been aware that the burden of actual physical care and the responsibility to be the person who, when the chips are down, sees that it happens often falls to the woman. My partner is outstanding (I'm biased!) in terms of taking on care and he's excellent in a crisis but it remains the case that the majority of people I have organised care with, received care from and met through the care system are overwhelmingly women. And women who have children appear to be vulnerable - they are, in a sense, sitting ducks. If you are on maternity leave or working part time to care for your children or in a lower paid job that brings in less income than your partner earns, it almost invariably falls to you to be the one who can squeeze in a few more hours to give or arrange care for another family member or three. I know there are men who do this too but not, it seems, in anything like such large numbers.

My work has been in the university and health care sectors and in the church's ministry. The NHS and the churches provide 24 hour, 7 day-a-week services and this adds another level of complexity to the work/life balancing act. Shift work can be very rigid and unsocial in its demands while parish work has moments when it can feel you are almost indispensable.  I think of a colleague whose young child was taken ill with acute appendicitis on a morning when she was committed to take a funeral - this was the point at which she discovered for real that the church's back-up call-out systems do not always operate like clockwork! 

Every job has its own particular rhythms, priorities and consequent stresses. What the female workforce requires is a root and branch examination of the measures that create the kind of environment in which work and care can reasonably take place alongside each other. Phillips' argument is that until we begin to address workplace issues of time, time off, pay, benefits*, leave, location, communication, child and elderly care from female-driven perspectives, we will all (not just women) continue to miss out. Women will continue to be relatively handicapped and/or stressed in making the contribution they would like to make to society. She concludes her article, 'What is lost in missed contributions to both the Treasury and society must run to billions of pounds. Thousands of missed opportunities for innovation, lifesaving medicine, beautiful things and technical revolutions. What could have been if only we’d thought to remember the women keeps me awake at night. What have we missed?' And indeed, what have those being cared for - children, elderly relatives and relatives with illness or disability - missed out on by being part of a slightly frazzled existence where the meeting of everyday needs only hangs together by the skin of its teeth, people are stressed, and relaxed time spent together is a rare luxury?

The Fabian Society has just published a pamphlet that looks at some of these issues through the eyes of the Labour women MPs elected since 1997. Undoubtedly, having more women involved in the creation of legislation has helped. But has it helped enough, or even as much as it should have in 20 years and what is preventing progress? What would work be like if men worked in ways that were shaped by expectations of flexible working hours, career breaks, job sharing, care-leave? And expectations that taking advantage of this way of working did not debar you from training opportunities, increased responsibility and promotion. I can hear the laughter echoing in my ears, 'What world does she live in?' But that's the problem in a nutshell - I live in my world which is populated by managers, directors, colleagues, family members, poorly neighbours. I can't ignore any of them but I have to make sense of it all and respond appropriately. And my female perspective ought to be able to inform work place assumptions and infrastructures as well as those that drive patterns of care.

Out today

This Woman Can: 1997, Women and Labour
Editor Sally Keeble, published for the Fabian Society 
Fabian Ideas 643

This woman can, this woman is...

* benefits is an interesting word. You might argue that what a male-centric society sees as 'benefits', a female-centric society would see as essential to the good of all.

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