Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Women - Free to Work Harder

The following article by Lindsey German was printed in today's Guardian.

Lindsey is National Convenor of the UK Stop the War Coalition, RESPECT candidate for London Mayor & Author of "Material Girls: Women, Men & Work"

The women's economic miracle has passed largely unremarked, but increasing numbers of women over the past two decades have contributed more to global economic growth than either new technology or the rapidly industrialising giants of China and India. In the 1970s many of us thought working outside the home would be liberating for women, freeing them from financial dependence on men and allowing them roles beyond those of wife and mother.

It hasn't worked out that way. Women's labour has been bought on the cheap, their working hours have become longer and their family commitments have barely diminished. Yesterday's G2 special investigation into how employers treat parents highlighted companies offering decent maternity packages, but many firms refused to take part, and the question remained whether a woman's career would survive childbirth.

The reality for most working women is a near impossible feat of working ever harder. There have been new opportunities for some women: professions once closed to them, such as law, have opened up. Women managers are commonplace, though the top boardrooms remain male preserves. Professional and managerial women have done well out of neoliberalism. Their salaries allow them to hire domestic help.

But more women face worsening conditions: the supermarket or call centre workers; the cooks, cleaners and hairdressers; all find themselves in low-wage, low-status jobs with no possibility of paying to have their houses cleaned by someone else. Even those in professions once-regarded as reasonably high-status, such as teaching, nursing or office work, have seen that status pushed down with longer hours, more regulation and lower pay.

Inequality is not just between men and women, but increasingly between "top" women and those at the lower levels of wages and conditions. Class divisions between women appear in starker form than they did a generation ago. Indeed, those at the top often rely on the labour of those at the bottom to sustain their lifestyles.

Role models such as cabinet ministers Yvette Cooper (three children) or Ruth Kelly (four) do not face the problems of most working women. They receive salaries of three or four times the average female wage, have far longer holidays, access to drivers and other benefits. Estimates have put the cost of employing a nanny at £35,000 a year. Even the cost of a full-time nursery place, at £10,000 a year in London, is close to many women's annual wage.

Women's right to work should not mean a family life where partners rarely see each other or their children. Yet a quarter of all families with dependent children have one parent working nights or evenings, many of them because of childcare problems.

The legislative changes of the 1960s and 1970s helped establish women's legal and financial independence, but we have long come up against the limits of the law. A more radical social transformation would mean using the country's wealth - much of it now produced by women - to create a decent family life. A 35-hour week and a national childcare service would be a start.

It is hard to imagine the major employers conceding such demands. Every gain that women have made at work has had to be fought for.

Women's lives have undergone a revolution over the past few decades that has seen married women, and mothers in particular, go from a private family role to a much more social role at work. But they haven't left the family role behind: now they are expected to work even harder to do both.

1 comment:

gwe said...

RC - have posted a response to your comments regarding Die GrĂ¼nen and Die Linkspartei over on my blog.