The making of the modern girl part 4: So much for choice, Mum

Where does she go from here?: Single women may be equals in the workplace but they still make the sacrifices when children arrive. By Patricia Hewitt
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Twenty-one years ago, I marched, petitioned and lobbied for the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts. Today, my daughter's teachers worry about boys' underperformance, fearing that any class where girls are in a minority may show up badly on the SAT scores. Girls can take equal pay and equal opportunities for granted. Or can they?

Twenty-one years has produced the first woman pilot, first black woman QC, first woman prime minister and many others. None the less, women's earnings remain stubbornly at around two-thirds of men's. The average, however, can mislead. Young women are doing much better than their mothers. According to research carried out at the London School of Economics by Jane Fakenham and Susan Harkness, single women under the age of 30 who have no children are earning around 95% of the incomes of their male peers. Today's teenage girls, the next cohort of accountants, lawyers and doctors, can expect to do even better.

Nothing to worry about, then? Sadly, not so. Where marriage spelt the end of a career for these girls' grandmothers, today the crunch comes with children. Although the marriage bar hasn't been replaced by a "baby bar" - indeed, around 40% of mothers of children under the age of five are also in employment - the earnings of married and cohabiting women only make up one-fifth of total family income. Today's young women may not encounter a gender barrier when they enter the labour market, but they can still expect to hit a family barrier.

To their credit, many employers accept (as we, forlornly, argued in the Seventies) that equal opportunities work for business as well as women. A pregnant woman in the Civil Service, a bank, management consultancy, local council or other established employer may well be offered a career break or part-time working after her paid maternity leave. But it is still women whom employers have in mind when they adopt "family-friendly" working practices, and it is still women who generally make the choices.

For mothers of young children, part-time work is often a positive choice. Indeed, even women in less skilled work sometimes talk of "putting their careers on hold" while focusing on children. The price they pay, however, is often permanent: most part-time work is lower paid without access to training, promotion or pension scheme. Some, usually well established in their careers, negotiate a better deal. Others, even rarer, have partners who also combine a three-day week with care of children and home. But the "family gap" in earnings reflects the simple fact that, by and large, it is mothers who make time for their children first and their job second: for fathers, it is the other way around.

These choices aren't easy, but at least they are choices. The hype about today's have-it-all generation ignores the fate of women who leave school with few educational qualifications. They, and unqualified men, are less likely to be in employment today than 20 years ago. The result is young women seeking adulthood, and at least a minimal income, by having children on their own, with precious little hope of finding an emotionally or economically mature mate. There is also a growing gulf between the "work-poor" households where women and men may only exchange unemployment for casual, low-paid and often soul-destroying work, and the"work-rich" households where better- educated adults enjoy two jobs, at least one of them full time. Just as the gap between men and women is closing, the gulf between the classes is opening up again.

So how will my daughter's generation cope? Will they remember a mother who never seemed to have enough time for everything and decide to be the full-time mother of nursery books? Or, like a growing minority of today's thirty-somethings, will they decide children aren't worth the hassle? If they are well educated and well paid, they may find careers that offer more excitement than the less obvious joys of motherhood. Others will compromise, postponing children until their careers are established, leaving some of them to confront infertility when it's too late for treatment, perhaps too late for adoption.

Or will they challenge the old organisational assumption that "every worker has a wife". This would require radically different working patterns that would allow men as well as women to earn a living, care for their family, update their education and, yes, enjoy some leisure and take part in community life - and to combine all these things in different ways at different stages of their lives. Now that would be good for women, men - and children, too.

The writer is a trustee of the Institute for Public Policy Research and author of 'About time: the revolution in work and family life' (IPPR/Rivers Oram).

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