Saturday 24 February 2018

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.

Sadly, the conversation about greater formal equality between men and women in childcare – as in, legal equality in matters such as paid parental leave – is still just a conversation and far from a reality. When a child vomits in school, it is the mother's number they try first.

When one parent has to stay at home with that child the next day, it is more often the mother who has to grit her teeth, square her shoulders, and make that call to her boss. Again. 'I'll be on my phone and working from home as much as possible, but I can't come in...'

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.

Is This A Women's Recession?

So are women disproportionately victims of the recession?

"I would be cautious about saying that the recession is affecting women more," says Ann Irwin, policy office with the National Women's Council of Ireland.

"We don't want to set up a competition; the recession has had a huge impact on men as well. However, the austerity that has come about as a result of the recession has impacted public services, which particularly affects women in two ways. They are predominantly employed in this area, so the increase in unemployment affects them, but also women and their children are the primary accessors of the services, so the cuts affect them in that way too."

Where the first wave of the recession attacked primarily male jobs, such as construction, the second wave affected retail and services, traditionally women-dominated.

The most recent figures, from the fourth quarter of 2012, showed that jobs lost in admin/ secretarial/ catering and leisure – all primarily 'female' areas – were disproportionately lost by women, so that in fact men have gained ground in those areas.

Then chuck in the utterly dispiriting suggestion that women whose salaries are exceeded by their childcare costs could be made to stay at home and close the outgoings gap, and it becomes clear that attitudes towards women's contribution to the workforce in this country are as sneery as ever: "Go on and get yourself a little job if you like, but of course the real business of your life is minding children."

The short-sighted, ignorant approach to women's working lives – which is in direct opposition to EU reports urging an increase in the employment of women – risks condemning us to unexciting jobs about which we care little. Women could be denied the possibility to pursue a career because the forces lined up against our being able to manage this in tandem with the relatively few really difficult years they experience with children (on average 10, out of a working life span of about 40) are too heavy.

Women still shoulder a disproportionate childcare burden, and the recession has made childcare vastly more difficult (the percentage of salaries now going to the creche or nanny is higher, as well as the stress-legacy of unsympathetic employers), ergo you might say they are having a tougher recession than men.

Except nothing so grim as the recent years in this country should be turned into a competition. It's not about public v private, old v young, or men v women.

We are all suffering. A woman's lot is not a happy one, but neither is anyone else's. However, put everything together, and this may well be the worst time to be a woman, in Ireland, for 40 years.

Now that may not be a whole heap of a deal, when you compare our situation with that of women around the world in developing countries, or with our mothers' and grandmothers' generations. But it is not nothing, either.

Tellingly, many of our mothers and grandmothers feel sorry for us. They think that, for all our technical equality, we have somehow landed a rougher deal than they had.

And that, in its way, speaks volumes.

Some of them are even weighing in to help. For the luckier working women, it is their own mothers who are picking up the slack: doing a day a week, collecting early from the creche, sometimes feeding and even bathing the kids before their mother arrives to put them into the car and straight home to bed.

These life-saving older women are the high-functioning, dynamic generation now in their 60s and 70s, but such are demographics these days, they often have ancient parents of their own to care for. They are caught between three generations in need – children, grandchildren and parents – and their own health is suffering as they try to alleviate the burden of all.

We're Not Worth It

For women who have lost their jobs, or seen their hours dramatically reduced, there are the distressing efforts to hold a family together on dwindling social welfare payments, almost non-existent savings, and ever more frantic drives for economy. Those who don't have families may have to choose between emigration and attempts to 'upskill' in the competitive search for a new job.

But even those who still have jobs are battling stress on every side. Gym and exercise class memberships are down not just because we can't afford them, but because we don't have time.

That thing called 'me-time' has gone the same way as 'work-life balance' – into the ether.

Spending money on ourselves is now a cause of guilt rather than a sneaky feeling of righteous self-indulgence. We no longer think we're worth it.

Now, some of the overload is our own fault. Because the very things that make us such troupers – can-do, uncomplaining, efficient, multi-taskers and emotional rocks – prevents us from throwing our hands up and saying, 'Enough! Stop! I can't do this any more.'

Instead of throwing a tantrum and calling halt, we plod on, internalising our stress and getting on with it. However, if we are stressed, no matter how well we try to hide it, our children inevitably suffer. We have to close our eyes to their desire to see more of us, ignore their cries as we drop them to creche in the morning, or their pleas not to go to after-school today.

"Why do I have to go to camp in the holidays?" Because we have nowhere else.

I recently asked a boy home to play with one of my sons.

His mother refused: "I'm not letting him do playdates at the moment, because I can't pay them back without taking an afternoon off work, and now isn't a good time to do that." She wouldn't allow herself to be persuaded, even though I tried. "It isn't fair," she insisted.

I would argue that it wasn't fair on the child, but I bowed to her determination.

The Triumph of Mothershould

There is something else going on here, too, an extra squeeze from above. This something is the fetishisation of motherhood, which cannot seem to stop. A juggernaut of judgment and sentimentality, applied to the business of raising children. 'Yours is the most scared and important task of all' goes the mantra, 'the most important role any of us has. But we won't help you with it. Instead, we will bombard you with a range of conflicting information, idealised images of what you should be doing, and then we'll sit back and judge you on the outcome.'

Motherhood has turned into Mothershould.

So exactly at the point where 'choices' around childcare and work-life balance have become a bit of a joke, part of a past that includes spa weekends and shopping trips to New York, we are also being told – endlessly – how important our role is. Once upon a time, it was enough to physically care for children; now we need to nurture them psychologically, too, and enhance their chances of success by any means possible. This involves getting our heads around the kind of advice that goes: praise is very important for children, but praise them for specific things such as effort, only. If you praise them generally – 'You're amazing, you're brilliant' – they become under-achieving and experience low self-worth because they cannot cope with failure.

Absurdly, the fetishisation of motherhood is even starting to affect women without children, because so gone is the whole of society on the apparent glories of the mother role that they are being fed the rubbish line that without children, they cannot possibly be fulfilled. "Look at her, CEO of a publicly quoted company, with a new Lexus and second house in Barbados. But no children. Poor thing, she must be so lonely."

That a woman can be an object of silent pity because she doesn't have children – no matter how successful the rest of her life – is ridiculous. I imagine the new dawn of feminism didn't envisage society rushing back to the mores of the 1950s quite so quickly – but that is what has happened, with plenty of high-profile women keen to tell us how they make sure to put their husbands first in everything, and never greet them without being perfectly turned out and made-up.

For those consid-ering children, there are more questions to be asked. In such an uncertain world, the decision of whether to have children now is being deferred for reasons of fear and uncertainty – don't rock the boat, basically, and of course nothing rocks the boat quite like a child.

Ireland still has the highest birth rate in the EU, but it is starting to show a decline, perhaps as the dreary, awful realities of the recession really kick in.

Up close, the view is gloomy. But that might be a lack of perspective, too. How does 'Now' appear to someone who knows more about 'Then'? Writer Rosita Sweetman was part of that Holy Trinity of change, back in the 1970s; does she think women have sunk from equality to entropy? "I think there has never been a better time to be a woman," she says merrily. "Never have so many women looked so beautiful and had such interesting lives. Feminism has been amazing for all women, although the sharp side certainly comes when the babies arrive." As for women having too much on their plates, "I think women have a lot on their plates because it's fun. It's fun being in the world, having a career, having a family. When you look back, even 50 years ago, it's like looking into the Dark Ages."

Clearly the view changes according to the distance. As Abraham Lincoln said: "We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses."

We've come a long way, definitely. But we're not there yet.

Irish Independent

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