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The mother of all career choices: Women in the armed forces should be compensated for loss of their right to raise a family, says Rosalind Miles

A family, or a career? Pregnant ex-servicewomen sacked for taking the first option raised a storm of debate about the justice of their case and the size of their awards. Now the news that women in the armed forces who did not become pregnant may sue for lost opportunity and injury to feelings has struck many observers as legal opportunism run riot. 'How very American' is the lofty put-down heard on all sides.

Is it, though? Faced with the Ministry of Defence's policy of 'one strike, you're out', thousands of women were forced to reject motherhood as the price of keeping their jobs. And this stark choice is no more than hundreds of thousands of other women have faced as the price of survival in what has always been the male world of work.

'It's only recently that women have even tried to combine the two,' says Marcelle D'Argy Smith, editor of Cosmopolitan. 'Before the 1980s, you just couldn't. By making the choice of motherhood, you were seen to be not interested in a career.' The orthopaedic surgeon Rosemary Daniels, now 45, was one of many women who discovered the force of this unwritten law when she started working in her twenties. 'Because I was a mother, I had to work twice as hard to establish my professional credibility. And even then, there's no doubt that having children held me back.'

This is not feminist paranoia. 'As soon as a woman has a baby, her value in the employer's eyes declines,' says Roger Eddison, a management consultant. 'Anyone who steps off the ladder, even for a few months, automatically loses status and seniority. Mothers are felt to be less reliable than they were before. As a result, employers will put a new mother and her career on hold until they see how she gets on.'

That 'hold' can cost you dear. By the age of 35, a London University survey showed, a mother is earning, on average, one-third less than a woman who has stayed in work. That financial loss is compounded by reduced pension rights, health benefits and the loss of any of the other financial incentives that make up today's pay packages. And there's no way round this. Timing the career break makes no difference, as the penalties are proportionate to the level reached. Limiting your family doesn't help either, since you are seen as a mother from the first moment of your first pregnancy.

Faced with such overt discrimination and financial deprivation, is it any wonder that some women have found it remarkably easy to make the classic career-girl choice and focus on work, not family? 'I managed to avoid the whole thing by avoiding marriage,' says Janet Mead, former research director at Maxwell Group, now heading up an international organisation in Paris. Mead remained out of England between the crucial ages of 18 and 30, 'by which time I was safely on the shelf, so it just never happened'.

'It never happened' for countless other prominent women too, including the BBC's Liz Forgan, whose 20-year devotion to a married man has meant that 'happy families' was one programme she was unlikely to commission. Germaine Greer also, despite a highly publicised sex life, a marriage (albeit of three weeks), and a continuously supportive attitude towards children and mothering in her writing, has also remained childless.

But given the choice, many of today's high-achieving women found that the decision took itself. 'It was quite deliberate,' says Shere Hite, author of The Hite Report on Female Sexuality (1976) and the recent Hite Report on the Family (Bloomsbury, 1993). 'I never had any desire to have children, I always wanted to work.'

For other women, the choice was not between a family and a career, but between children and the chance of a different future. 'You can't do everything,' says Marcelle D'Argy Smith. 'There were so many other things I wanted to do - jump on planes, live in other countries, travel around, go cold if I had to, go hungry - you can't put a baby through that.'

And if you want children, you don't have to have them yourself, says Jean Denton, Undersecretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office. 'I'm not carrying a torch for the children I didn't have, I just borrow them instead,' she says. 'I find there's enough parents willing to lend and some would gladly put their kids out on long-term loan.' Jean Denton is grieved by the very young women she sees rushing into motherhood 'simply as their first instance of unconditional love. I've always found that if you trust people, you can get that from all over the place.'

Childless women, then, can have careers and real lives and access to children, too. 'How anyone can think we're deprived, I just don't know,' comments Jean Denton. Perhaps the example of these childless career women who love their lives and love what they do may be of comfort to the childless servicewomen currently coming to terms with their own situation.

Or perhaps not. After a working lifetime maintaining a rigorous childlessness either by impeccable contraceptive discipline or by resort to abortion, it's hard to comprehend how they must feel at seeing their colleagues who defaulted win these huge awards and also the plaudits for having taken a stand.

The argument that they must have known the score and accepted it when they signed up will not hold water, since in natural justice, no one can consent to an illegal process, as this has been shown to be. These women have lived their lives in the shadow of a viciously anti-feminist system that attacks their basic human rights: freedom of choice and the right to control their own bodies. We should give them the money and just try to ensure that so brutal a wrong never blights so many female lives again.