The system helps working mums - but we pay a price
Published 28/05/2016 | 02:30
There are few things in life as depressing as the sight of two females arguing about how best to be a modern woman, while the lads sit back and watch.
That was the spectacle that greeted viewers of Brendan O'Connor's 'Cutting Edge' on Wednesday night, where the host sat in near-silence as his female guests got stuck in. During a debate about working mothers, broadcaster Alison O'Connor argued, reasonably, for more support for this put-upon cohort of employees.
Meanwhile her opponent, journalist Niamh Horan, argued equally reasonably that workplaces are not charities designed to accommodate women who are, as she put it, "riding the system".
Niamh pointed out that working mothers enjoy perks like consecutive maternity leaves, four-day weeks and career breaks while their childless colleagues keep the show on the road. To top it all off, she added, those same mums then dump their offspring in creches for 12 hours at a time. Suffice to say, Niamh is not impressed with modern mothers.
As a working mum just about to embark on my second maternity leave in as many years, I'm probably supposed to feel outraged by this, like the majority of Twitter users appeared to be.
But actually, I can see where Niamh is coming from. It must be hugely irritating to be left behind in a gloomy office doing all the paperwork while the new mothers of this world waft around dimly-lit bedrooms in their dressing gowns, blissed out on pregnancy hormones and beatifically sniffing their infants' downy heads, like something out of a pre-Raphaelite oil painting.
What Niamh didn't get round to pointing out was that once working mothers have finished riding the system, the system proceeds to ride them right back. Once you've battled your way through the fog of sleepless nights, the financial realities of starting a family dawn.
How come you're suddenly so broke? Is it because most of your wages now go to the crèche? Is it because you've had to buy a bigger house and car to accommodate endless accoutrements that the modern baby seems to require? Or is it because you've reduced your working hours to save on crèche fees or to spend more time with your little cherubs, and then watched your pay packet shrink significantly as a result?
It's probably all of the above, and the bad news for all of us in the working-mum camp is that, over time, it only gets worse. A widely reported survey published last week by consultants Glassdoor pointed out that Irish working mothers earned 31pc less than their male counterparts.
Meanwhile, UK figures show that childless women continue to flourish in the workplace, out-earning even the men. So while the child-free might envy their colleagues that career break now, in 20 years time, when they're the ones with the bigger salary, their feet under the boardroom table and the prospect of a solid pension in retirement, they'll be having the last laugh, in career terms at least.
Meanwhile, many of the working mothers who were once their equal in terms of ability will have stagnated on the middle rungs of the career ladder and be facing the prospect of a vastly depleted retirement fund. Others will have dropped out of the workforce altogether, unable or unwilling to continue in the workplace once the demands of family life - or crèche fees - became too much.
Most mothers have realised by now that the notion of having it all is a fairytale. What you can have, instead, is a muddled-up jigsaw of things: a life where you try to balance what's good for your children with what's good for your career and what's good for you as a person. That might involve fewer working hours, grandparents filling in the gaps, and a life run to a military-style schedule, complete with UN-style negotiations with your spouse as to who's doing the nightfeed/crèche pick-up/school run.
It's exhausting, but it's far from thankless: there is something uniquely wonderful about being able to be both a mother and an employee. I love my son infinitely, but I also love my job, and I'm prepared to do the juggling to make sure I give enough to both. I want to spend as many hours as possible with my little boy, but I also want a separate space where I'm still the working woman that I've been for more than 15 years; I want to be able to think and talk about adult matters and to be able to financially support myself and my family.
I don't feel as though I'm taking advantage of the system: having reduced my hours while remaining in employment, I'm still a taxpayer and contributing to the economy, and secondly, having opted for a shorter working week, I'm more productive simply because I have to be. And if my smaller pay packet is the price I pay for spending time with a curly-headed two-year-old with a toothy grin and a 'Thomas the Tank Engine' obsession, I'm okay with that.
Those are my choices, and I'm lucky enough to be able to make them. What rankles is the tendency to talk about what's good for women in general, as if all women wanted the same things, or all women's circumstances were the same. There is also a tendency to talk in broad terms about 'positive' developments for women, many of which don't stand up to scrutiny.
If we had more affordable childcare, yes, it would free some women up to return to work, but cost isn't the only consideration for women - you only have to look at the most affluent families in the country to see that where money is genuinely plentiful, many couples opt for the one-income model, making family life a whole lot simpler.
Generous maternity leave, while welcome, can have unfortunate consequences for women's careers: the OECD has found that European countries with the best parental leave rights are also among those with the biggest pay gaps. It's obvious, really: absence from the workplace comes at a price. The more you're not there, the less valuable you are to a company, and the less you earn. That's just a fact.
But it should be a welcome one for Niamh and other women like her: they will reap the rewards in terms of leapfrogging equally able colleagues as they advance up the career ladder.
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution for women, but it would be nice if women - child-free or not - could demonstrate a little more understanding of one another's choices. But once again, it's women who are criticising each other's decisions, while the men sit back and let us at it.
So much for the sisterhood.