Do high-flying jugglers really have it all?

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The Independent Culture
Working mothers are sitting pretty in their executive chairs, says a new report. Labour Editor Barrie Clements is not convinced.

According to Professor Heather Joshi of City University, London, while working-class women still struggle to combine work and family, their more upmarket sisters are finding it much easier. But should we run away with the idea that middle class women have finally achieved equality in the work place with men who take less responsibiliy for children? The answer is No. There may well be a disparity between the "family-friendly" benefits enjoyed by those at the bottom of the heap and those much higher up, but you have to get to the very top - still a difficult business for women - before employers fall at your feet and minister to your family's every need.

Although lawyers advise companies to make benefits such as maternity leave open in equal measure to everyone in the organisation, less formal perks - such as occasionally working from home or re-arranging schedules on an ad hoc basis to fit in with family life - are usually only on offer to the most senior people. There are also discreet bonuses available for the most highly trained to persuade them to come back to work after childbirth.

Some industrial sectors are clearly more family-friendly than others. Kirstie Axtens, of the pressure group Parents at Work, points out that the service industries such as banking and retailing tend to offer much better benefits than male dominated sectors such as construction and engineering. Local authorities and government departments are traditionally also more helpful.

And the bigger the employer, the greater the chance that the needs of the working mother will be catered for. Such organisations inevitably have human resource departments which will champion such policies. Medium- sized and smaller companies present a much bigger problem for parents at work.

Even in larger businesses, glossy brochures on equal opportunities policies are not necessarily translated into action at the sharp end. Many male middle managers are notorious for ignoring the lofty statements from the boardroom. Ms Axtens counsels that "take-up" rates of available benefits will sometimes present a very different picture from that normally seen by the outside world.

The relatively enlightened corporate membership of Opportunity 2000 has led the way in the field of equal opportunities for the professional classes. Established in order to ensure that women smash their way through the glass ceiling, the company has elicited a whole series of family-friendly policies from employers, albeit large ones. The vast majority of Opportunity 2000 members offer maternity leave above and beyond the call of legislation. Seven out of ten offer leave to new fathers, and five out of ten provide career breaks, adoptive parents' leave and advice on childcare facilities. Nearly a third have organised holiday play schemes.

There are still substantial problems to overcome, however. One of the most persistent is the long-hours culture that increasingly pervades the workplace. The man who stays behind after his normal working day, is inevitably - and often superficially - regarded as a superior being. The woman who rushes home to look after the kids is not sufficiently committed, the argument goes. In some businesses - especially those which have been the victim of "downsizing" - management may actually need people to work longer hours. Most working mothers would probably find it difficult to fulfil such a role.

There are also some professions where success is not best served by people taking long career breaks. Pat Corcoran, operations director at Opportunity 2000, gives the example of legal, scientific and technical jobs where the body of required knowledge can change rapidly. Ms Corcoran also suggests that administrative posts are more susceptible to career breaks than management jobs. In the groves of academe, the don who produces regular and voluminous research over a long period is regarded as superior to a colleague who finds that family life impairs productivity. "Success in some jobs can be a function of the amount of time put in,", says Ms Corcoran.

Perhaps the message is that while employers can help working mothers, the only real answer is that men should be encouraged or persuaded to take greater responsibility for their children.