Like many working mothers, the news that I was the victim of discrimination by being excluded (because of my gender) from after-work drinks, came as something of a surprise. An analysis of after-work drinking (or ‘early evening socialising’ as it is apparently known) in my own workplace, plus a wider sample drawn from walking past pubs located near offices on a Friday night, reveals that there are roughly similar numbers of men and women enjoying their alcoholic beverages. Couples where both parents are actively involved in childcare are generally happy to take it in turns to look after the kids when the other partner is out. It did not seem to occur to Jeremy Corbyn that the solution to this problem (if indeed it is a problem) lies in encouraging men to play a greater role in looking after their own children rather than trying to stop everyone else having a good time.
Nevertheless, the underlying issue that Corbyn identified – that motherhood hugely exacerbates the gender pay gap – is a very real one. Women who give up work altogether when they have children, struggle to even go back at the same level at which they left. Women who return to work part-time find that their prospects for promotion are limited. And even women who go back to work full-time will often turn down better-paying jobs because they do not want a long commute, or avoid roles that involves a lot of travel or antisocial hours, while their children are young.
It is fairly obvious that providing affordable childcare would help to narrow the gap. Research by the Resolution Foundation suggests two-thirds of unemployed mothers are not working because childcare is too expensive, while 67 per cent of those in work say the cost of childcare prevents them working more. This is a problem both for those individual women and for the economy – a policy of providing affordable childcare would ultimately pay for itself through increased tax revenue and productivity. The reason for not doing this seems to be a fear of offending those who believe that women should not work when their children are young. But making childcare available does not compel anyone to use it. Families who decide that it is best for them that the mother stays at home are still free to make that choice.
Yet even with affordable childcare, there are women (and I would count myself among them) who choose not to prioritise the advancement of their careers while their children are young, and find our salaries falling behind male earnings as a result. There is nothing wrong with making this choice, but too often women find themselves permanently disadvantaged as a result.
In an excellent article for the Guardian a few weeks ago, Margaret Hodge made the point that our working lives are longer than ever before – conceivably up to 50 years. In a rapidly changing world, the job you start with may very well not even exist at the end of that period, so having several different phases in your working career, in which jobs and priorities change will be increasingly normal. Yet many employers still seem to expect job applicants to have followed a straight-line career trajectory where certain milestones are reached at certain ages. It therefore seems odd if 50-year-old woman applies for the same job as a 25-year-old woman and faced with this situation, employers often make incorrect assumptions that the older woman may be more ‘stuck in her ways’, less able to pick up new skills and even brand her as a ‘failure’, while simultaneously ignoring the fact that experience outside the workplace, including (though by no means limited to) parenthood, can improve performance within it. This is particularly true of soft skills such as communication, empathy and working in a team – which are becoming increasingly important.
Discrimination on the basis of age is of course illegal, but government should make it clearer to employers that they should take this just as seriously as other forms of employment discrimination. Government could also invest a great deal more in lifelong learning. Against a background of much longer working lives, the current almost-exclusive focus on education up to the age of 21 is anachronistic. Providing funding to ensure women have the skills and confidence to return to well-paying jobs later on in life would be another policy that would potentially pay for itself.
Part of the reluctance to deal with these issues lies in the fact that political parties can suffer from the same set of negative assumptions about age. The sheer amount of time that political activism takes up means that ‘early evening socialism’ is even more inaccessible to the parents of young children than socialising. Margaret Hodge did not become a member of parliament until she was 50 and the youngest of her children had reached the relative self-sufficiency of adolescence. She went on to have a distinguished career in politics and continues to be an active MP into her seventies. If we genuinely want Labour to be representative across all ages and genders, then this late-blooming career path needs to become more normal.
Telling people how they should be spending their time after work is not something that politicians should be doing. However, ensuring that women do not find themselves permanently punished for prioritising childcare during periods of their lives is very much something government needs to address.
Christabel Cooper writes a regular column on the Progress website. She tweets at @ChristabelCoops
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