Focus: What's next for women? - 'Maybe this time they'll give us what we really want'

OUT IN THE REAL WORLD
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE SINGLE MOTHER ON BENEFITS

Sabrina Hammoudi, 25, has a two-year-old son, Jawad, whom she is bringing up alone in Dalston, east London. Her weekly income is pounds 67.

I think a department to look after women would be a good thing. I hope they are talking about helping single mothers go back to work - but even if you get a job, train tickets are too expensive, you can't put your kids in the creche because it's too expensive. We need cheap creches, cheap fares. And it would help if they could give us courses to help us go back to work. I really want to work; being on benefits is no good. If my son sees his mum is on benefits, he will think that's okay, and it's not.

I used to take any work I could, even small jobs, though I can't now because I'm signing on. I worked for a cabinet maker, and it was all "You're a woman, you can't do this, can't do that, you can't lift this, you can't use the tools" - they wouldn't even give me a chance and in the end they made me feel I had to leave.

The Government promises a lot; they've said they will help young mothers. They've said that if we go to work we will still get a little benefit, but things like rent are so high when you're working. They should do things properly, back up their policies with other help, so going out to work doesn't become a disadvantage. I want to go back to work - I'll have to fight and struggle but I will go back.

THE FULL-TIME MOTHER

Sara Hornby, 29, has two daughters, Emily, two, and Sophie, nine months. She lives in Eton with her partner.

I've never heard of the women's unit and I don't know what it does. I think the only way you can have respect for women is not making an issue of it, not saying: "Oh, you're a woman, you need this, that and the other." I've got two children and I feel they are my responsibility, that it's up to me to look after them. At the moment the facilities I can call on are fantastic. My health visitor is great; there is a local council-run playgroup and mother-and-toddler group. You never feel isolated at this stage in your children's lives. What I'd like the Government to do is put all the money they possibly can into education and health for their futures. All my friends have similar concerns; everybody wants the best for their children. I'm aware that Labour is making an effort and I'm pleased that they're concerned about families. Hopefully by the time my children get to school age, something will have been achieved. My priorities centre on my children - being a woman is irrelevant. I think the time, energy and money that would go into the women's unit could go into other things. Most of the issues it would deal with would be resolved if there were more resources in other areas.

THE TEENAGE MOTHER

Mary Brown's four-year old girl was born when she was 17. She and her daughter live in London with her mother, and her weekly income is pounds 100.

I've never heard of any special policies for women. What I need more than anything else is just more money. I'm on benefits but I do the odd bit of cleaning for cash just to get by, to pay the bills, buy things for my little girl. I couldn't do it if I didn't live with my mum, so she can look after my daughter when she isn't working herself.

I had my baby when I was 17 and, although I wouldn't be without her now, I wish I'd waited a few years. I left school at 16 without any exams. I just expected to get by but then I fell pregnant. Now life is really hard. I can't give my daughter what I'd like her to have and I can't ever go out much - I stay at home because I hate seeing things in the shops that I can't buy. When I was younger I could go out for a drink, get stoned with my friends. It wasn't too bad - we'd have a laugh, but now I can't afford it. I do smoke cigarettes but I've cut down.

If the Government wanted to help me I'd want them to help me get a job. I wouldn't mind trying to do some exams but anything would do that pays a bit more than what I'm on now. But I'd have to have someone to look after my little girl because my mum can't do it all the time.

THE COMPANY DIRECTOR

Janetta Hamilton-Brown, 30, is the director of two successful companies, Only Lunch, an introductions agency, and Only Voice, a voice-mail dating service. She is divorced, has two children, Daniel, seven, and Oliver, five, lives in London and her yearly household income is around pounds 50,000.

I was vaguely aware that there was a women's unit. I think it's a totally negative idea. Positive discrimination does not work. I can honestly say that I've never felt disadvantaged in business because I'm a woman. You gain respect by acting honestly, whatever your sex. People should be chosen on merit rather than because politicians have said: "Oh, we have to have a certain number of women doing this or doing that." Blair's babes: what does that do for us? Having Tony Blair surrounded by a group of pretty faces is just a token gesture. I don't know how I feel about the Government. I don't keep my eyes open for "women's issues". I just get on with running my business.

If Labour is interested in helping women, more and more are choosing to have a career and be working mothers - why not address that? I've chosen to have a live-in nanny because my children were little when I separated from my husband and I felt it was important to have another responsible adult in the house. It's an expensive option, and I'm always on a tight budget. I'm taxed on my nanny's wages, and that's on money that has already been taxed when I earned it; perhaps the tax system could be looked at so that doesn't happen. And there should be some sort of regulation for nannies - why aren't they recognised as a profession? We are all paranoid about who we leave our children with.

THE ACADEMIC

Dr Sandi Mann, 30, is a lecturer in occupational psychology at the University of Central Lancashire. She is married, and has no children.

I knew that a women's unit was being talked about but I didn't know it had already been set up. What worries me is that it marginalises issues as "women's issues" and they shouldn't be. I can't think of a single issue that should be dealt with exclusively by a women's committee. One example is childcare - I would be very frustrated and angry to see that on the "woman's agenda" when it should be a general issue. One of the problems with the glass ceiling is that women make career breaks to care for children, and the Government should make these available to men as well - childcare is not a woman's issue and few organisations have an adequate paternity leave scheme.

There are many cases where prejudice and discrimination do exist - simple things like, because I'm Dr Mann, people assume that I'm male, or if I walk in with my partner they assume that he's Dr Mann. Even on the BBC they refer to "businessmen", which I think gives a negative impression. It's about changing perceptions as well as legislation, and social changes take years to happen. Labour appears to be more pro-woman than previous governments but a lot is rhetoric. My female students say they are not a minority sub-group: they say they are human beings and should be treated like other human beings.

THE PENSIONER

Maureen Delenian, 61, is a pensioner. A divorcee, she lives in London. She has four grown-up children, and her income is just under pounds 500 a month.

I've never heard of the women's unit. If anything positive comes out of it, that'll be fine, but I can't see it being of much practical help for women; it'll mean more bureaucracy. Unless they are prepared to put their money where their mouth is it won't do any good. In terms of wages I've been disadvantaged all my life; women are at a disadvantage when it comes to the labour market, particularly working-class women. Middle-aged women might make it into the boardroom but working-class women struggle. It's not so much a fact of gender, it's a fact of class. I'd like to see the heat taken off single parent families, who are predominantly women. The issue of welfare for working women should be addressed. My daughter is a single parent and wants to work, but she has to worry about her benefits being cut. There should be free nursery places. They could afford it after the last war, when they wanted women in the workplace. As a pensioner, I've become worse off since the last pension rise, because I've got a small private pension. I'm concerned that if they succeed in selling the idea of private pensions it will be difficult for people on a low wage to save all their lives.

THE LIBRARIAN

Lynne Styles, "30-something", is a single parent, bringing up her two children, Faye, 14, and Mark, 10. She works as a librarian at the University of Northumbria.

I've heard of the women's unit and I think it has to be positive. There's the fear that an establishment run for women will place the responsibility for children, the home, elderly relatives squarely on women's shoulders, but women's lives are different to men's and I think the Government does need to recognise that. These are issues that need to be looked at to be sure that women get the best deal. I'd like to see financial support for childcare, private nurseries up and running, and free after-school clubs. And extended leave if children are sick, generous maternity leaves, and more flexible working hours - I work flexi-time and it's a massive help. Men are in this situation too, though, and I think it needs to be recognised these aren't just women's issues. I was pleased that Harriet Harman was doing something on women's safety. Tackling crime against women and the safety of women on public transport are important - women feel vulnerable and it shouldn't be that way. I haven't noticed a difference yet under Labour, but child benefit and income support are both going up soon, but if they push through the policies they are talking about I will be better off.

THE MANAGER

Tracey Sharrock, 35, worked for the TSB and in marketing on the Stock Exchange, and now runs the Pronuptia bridal shop in Windsor. She lives with her partner, has no children, and earns around pounds 20,000.

I have heard of the women's unit, but only vaguely. I assume that what it does must be something to do with campaigning for equality and promoting the role of women. I find the whole idea embarrassing. It's like the idea that there should be a certain number of women in the Cabinet - it's artificial. If I was in the Cabinet I wouldn't want to feel I was making up numbers as a token woman. I'd want to be there on my own merits.

I never experienced discrimination in my work. When I worked at the TSB I knew a lot of senior women; they had some forward-looking policies. On the Stock Exchange women were well respected, and there were women at director and executive level. When I set up my business with Pronuptia, where I have a licence to run the shop with a female partner, it didn't even occur to me that we were two women doing this - we had the credentials to be taken seriously. When New Labour got in I felt they were a version of Conservatism and I didn't feel they were especially pro-women. I can't think of anything I'd want the women's unit to be working on. I've never felt disadvantaged because I'm a woman.

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