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January 05, 2006 || 10:29 pm
Women in the boardroom

This old chestnut reared its head again today as the Equal Opportunities Commission reported that, surprise surprise, women are still decades away from achieving equality in the workplace. And some incredibly stupid man from Civitas says that this is because "women prefer to start families".

In case he wasn't listening in school, it takes two to start a family. For every woman who makes a conscious decision to have kids, there's a man out there who's also making that decision (let's leave out spurious anecdotes about sperm donors for now, hey?). And so why on earth that should mean that women are the only ones who need to make compromises between work and family life, by going part-time, worksharing or whatever, I don't know.

I am extremely proud to work in a firm headed by two extremely ambitious and dedicated working mothers - one with four children under ten. They both work full-time but it is a part of our weekly routine that some days, they pick up their kids from school and leave early, and they make meetings before 9.30 because they are taking them to school. Their partners both make the same level of 'sacrifice' by doing alternate days on school duty, and at half-term or holidays, they figure out how to share their time so there's always one of them in the office. They also use appropriate levels of childcare to enable them and their partners to have full-time jobs and it's simply not a problem.

These women work at the highest level; I don't see how a man from Civitas, or the misogynist at the Confederation of British Industry quoted in the BBC article, can claim that some high-level jobs are not suited to women because of their family commitments. If a woman wants to do a job at that level, she will work it out. Whether that means having a Denis Thatcher sitting at home, or employing a full-time nanny, there should not be any difference in the level of 'guilt' felt by a full-time executive mother and an executive dad.

Men can and should make 'work-life' choices in similar ways. Whether or not they feel pressured by a macho business culture into virtually denying the existence of their families is, to be frank, not my problem; it's an issue that these men should be strong enough to deal with, if they really do care. As far as I'm concerned, women should be much, much stronger about demanding that their menfolk contribute to caring for their families. There are jobs that do require extremely full-time commitment and long hours; well, if you both want to have a job like that, don't have kids, or get a good nanny and accept that your offspring will love him/her more than you.

The simple fact is, as every woman knows, that you don't get promoted into a senior long-term positions because it is expected that you will run off and have kids and never come back. It is all to do with the assumptions of male bosses, and nothing to do with what women actually 'want'. The self-perpetuating circle is clear; you aren't promoted to a position that you are excited by and committed to, so when you have kids you do decide to leave and do something different, thus reinforcing all the male assumptions about broody women. And it doesn't help that our laws are sexist too. I couldn't believe it when I found out recently that statutory maternity and paternity leave periods were still not equal. Two weeks paternity leave? You've got to be kidding - I thought 'getting left holding the baby' applied to single mums, not 21st century couples. When I have kids, their father is definitely going to have to take more time off than that to help out - whether he's got to go unpaid or not.

In any case, I can't believe that Civitas and the CBI are still spouting such incredibly sexist twaddle. If you meet David Conway or Iain McMillan, give them a good slap for me.

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