Monday 22 December 2014

have women ever had it so bad?

Forty years ago, with the repeal of the Marriage Bar, it looked as if Irish women were finally going to get a fair shake – and equal pay – in the world of work. But the recession has dashed those hopes, and today's mothers struggle to cope with less money and greater expectations, says Emily Hourican

Early morning in the city is a good time to take the temperature of Irish professional life, five years into the recession. This is when working mothers deposit their children at the creche, sometimes in pre-dawn darkness, child unloaded still in pyjamas and half-asleep, a hasty goodbye, then back in the car for the final run, to the office, where they aim to on time if not early, and hope to slink in unnoticed if they are late.

On the surface, this isn't a new scenario – such sights have been common for years now, part of the energy burst that fuelled the economy. But look closer and subtle differences are in evidence. The cars are older, the neat suits more threadbare, perhaps last year's winter coat is still being worn.

Most of all, the faces are different. More careworn, more harassed, a tightening around the mouth that betrays long years of money worries and financial compromises – curtailed summer holidays in order to afford back-to-school shoes, turning the heat on an hour later in the evenings, no matter how cold, to save on bills. And a more-than-ever panicked check of the watch as they unload their child, one frantic eye constantly on time. The grip of fear that holds every one of us is tighter for the working parents of young children, perhaps tighter again for working mothers, who find themselves caught between the irresistible force of their love for their children, and the unmovable object of their employer's expectations.

These aren't good times to be late. Not with the threat of redundancy hanging over all our heads. Neither are they good times to ask for the kind of flexible working arrangements that are so much stardust sprinkled on to the busy lives of working parents – Fridays off, maybe; a half-day on Wednesday; leaving at 4pm so long as you start at 8am. These requests, and the notion that we were all entitled to make them, to design a working life that fitted well with our home lives, became commonplace during the boom. 'Work-life balance' sounds like a fine notion, a bit New Age perhaps, until you realise that all it means is families being able to spend more than one frantic hour pre-bedtime together; mothers being able to work and stay connected to the daily lives of their children, rather than handing over this responsibility entirely to another. The pity is that it has fallen so far off the agenda that it may as well be Sony's e-Reader or The Network – or any other Great-Hope-turned-also-ran of modern life.

Back then, times were good, employees were valuable and the compromises that would keep them from moving to a rival company, taking their experience and contacts with them, seemed worth making. The working landscape now is very different.

The Future Was Golden

Nearly 40 years ago, thanks to the holy trinity of the Women's Movement, the Trade Union Movement and the EEC, Irish women got the repeal of the Marriage Bar and the right to equal pay. The barriers to their productive entry into the workforce seemed to be tumbling like so many autumn leaves, and a future of equality and dignity seemed within grasp. Those were intoxicating times, but delivery on the glorious promises has been far more problematic. The future was golden; what has come to pass is tarnished.

In the UK, women with young children are currently about as desirable to employers as woodworm is to carpenters. They are seen as so much internal rot, because of conflicting responsibilities and the emotional pull of a world separate to work. Statistics show that 80 per cent of human resources managers said they would "think twice" before hiring a newly married woman in her 20s, while 45 per cent of women face some kind of workplace discrimination or unfavourable treatment because of pregnancy.

Here in Ireland, an ERSI report into pregnancy at work published in June 2011, the first of its kind, found that one third of mothers in work during their pregnancy say they experienced "unfair treatment". Of the 2,300 randomly chosen women, 10 per cent reported loss of salary or bonus or denial of promotion, 12 per cent had unsuitable workloads, 8 per cent had received negative comments from superiors or co-workers, and, at the most extreme edge, 5 per cent reported dismissal.

I would argue – strongly – that this kind of culture affects all women, not just the ones with children. From those who take their wedding rings off before a job interview, hoping to avoid the kind of speculation that might penalise their chances, to the many who might not be directly affected, but suffer from a general drop in courtesy and the impression that women's careers are different to men's, subject to more mitigation and vagaries.

During the good times, a culture of manners grew up around the way we did business, based on ideas of consideration and decency. This has now been chipped away by a steady dwindling in resources and profits, and the panic that brings with it. It isn't just the boss who hates requests for flexibility or part-time work; it's co-workers, too.

They are already overburdened by the many roles that have been made redundant, with duties carved up between remaining staff, their pay has been cut and their futures are uncertain. Chances are, they will not greet a request to pick up slack for a busy working mother with much enthusiasm.

All this is unfolding against the steady backdrop of what has been called 'the motherhood penalty'; basically that women go from being paid 3.3 per cent less than men in their 20s, to 22.8 per cent less in their 40s. This is when the realities of having children really kick in, pulling the illusion of equality right out from under the feet. And that gender pay gap then has long-term consequences, because low salaries result in lower pensions and a higher risk of poverty.

And all Sheryl Sandberg's advice to 'lean in' isn't going to affect the male-dominated structure of senior positions in both the public and private sectors. These are still conducted like private members' clubs of old, although with less grouse.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, hammered one more nail into the coffin of equality recently when she decided to repeal the possibility of working from home for the company's 11,500 employees, on the basis that being "physically together" generates more and better ideas, and a stronger company culture.

Clearly there is a broad debate about working from home for all age groups and demographics, but, I would argue, much as the twenty-somethings might wish to stay home in their sweats and put in their hours with Divine Fits blaring in the background, remote working is something that means much more to mothers, cutting out their commute time and allowing greater flexibility of childcare.

In fact, it means everything to them, and seeing it increasingly disappear off the professional agenda – despite hard, factual indicators that productivity increases by as much as 27 per cent among telecommuting employees – is a bitter blow.

Irish Independent

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