Inequality still a problem for Ms Britain

Women in the Nineties: Study points to disadvantaged position, despite advances over the past two deacdes. Mary Braid reports

Employment, salary and domestic inequalities today still overshadow the advances of the so-called weaker sex, according to the first official sketch of Nineties woman.

Ms Britain 1995 is far more likely to own her own home, have college qualifications, have her own job and a driving license - 53 per cent, compared with 29 per cent 20 years ago.

But according to Social Focus on Women, the Central Statistical Office's first compre- hensive portrait of British womanhood, her earnings still lag substantially behind that of men, her career still suffers when she has children, and she and her sisters are still concentrated in low-status, low-paid, part-time jobs. Even in her traditional domain - education and clerical work - she will be surrounded by female colleagues but answerable to a male boss.

Yesterday, the Equal Opportunities Commission said that despite "tremendous" progress since the Sex Discrimination Act 20 years ago, the report confirmed that equality for women was a long way off.

"It is easy to forget the tremendous progress that has been made," said a commission spokesman.

"The 20-year-olds of today probably have little awareness that 20 years ago it was common to see women's rates for the same jobs done by men, discriminatory job advertisements and restrictions on women's ability to obtain credit. Today, despite the progress the picture shows that irrespective of whether women are high or low earners, overall, they are in a considerably worse financial position than men at all stages in their lives."

In a report last month, the commission highlighted a litany of "inequality", from the cradle to the grave and complained of "occupational segregation" and pay gaps between men and women of up to 27 per cent.

The Central Statistical Office report highlights the revolutionary changes in a woman's place within the family and the erosion of her traditional role as homemaker. Women are twice as likely to cohabit as 10 years ago, marry later - the average age is now 26 - and have fewer babies later. The average age at which women have their first baby is now 28, and those in their 30s are for the first time more likely to give birth than women in their 20s. While fertility rates are increasing in women over 40, reflecting the deferral of motherhood, it is predicted that one in five women will remain childless by the end of the century compared to one in eight women born in 1947. The number of single mothers - the majority of whom are divorced - has trebled since 1971.

Yesterday, the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Council for Single Parent Families said that society still made it very difficult for women with children - particularly those raising families on their own - to work. Lack of high-quality, affordable child care was crucial to improving their opportunities.

The report's employment section made the bleakest reading. While women form 44 per cent of the workforce compared to 37 per cent 20 years ago, the greatest increase is in part-time, low-paid jobs. It is unlikely that a woman who takes a break to have a baby will ever catch up with her male counterparts.

Amanda Gosling of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that any narrowing of the gap in men's and women's wages at both ends of the salary scale had more to do with men's position worsening than women's improving. There had been little narrowing of the gap in middle management salaries.

Among the report's more quirky discoveries is the revelation that 30,000 women read Penthouse magazine while women's favourite magazines are Take A Break, Viz, and Weight Watchers. This last publication clearly is not working - nearly half of women are either overweight or obese. The report also found that while Ms 1995 has lost interest in embroidery, knitting, and dressmaking, she is more involved in DIY.

Nearly a fifth of women feel very or fairly unsafe at home alone at night. Burglary, mugging and car theft worried most women in England and Wales, while rape is the crime most feared by Scottish women.

Men are five time more likely to be cautioned or convicted of a crime than women. One in seven women reported suffering severe stress, and while the proportion of women smoking has fallen, men have given up in greater numbers.

tSocial Focus on Women; Central Statistical Office; HMSO; pounds 25

Juggling to get the right balance

WORKING MOTHER

Tracy Posner, 34, is a rarity. While many women juggling careers and families complain of appalling compromises she believes she has it all.

Delaying many of the steps forced early on her mother Judith Dell, 58, has undoubtedly helped Tracy Posner devise a way of looking after Joshua, five, and Georgia, three, and run a successful business from home.

Mrs Posner, from Ealing, west London, has been with her husband Robert since she was 20. While her mother married and had family in her early twenties, with no established career, Mrs Posner lived with her husband for three years before they married when she was 26. By the time she had Joshua she was PR director for a leading advertising company.

Since Joshua was born she had worked from home as a freelance PR. "Everything was going well with my employer until I got pregnant," she remembers. "It did not turn out to be very enlightened. Part of PR is selling yourself. It helps if you seem sexy and young. As I swelled up I was labelled as owned. The company seemed to regard my pregnancy as an act of disloyalty." After maternity leave Ms Posner was not given her old job back. The post she was offered, while technically equal, was seen as thankless within the firm. She took redundancy and struck out on her own. It has taken until this year for her earnings to reach two-thirds of what they were.

She works mornings - she employs a nanny part-time - and keeps her afternoons free for the children. As well as family and career, she is a PR for a local family charity and a volunteer for a Jewish youth group. If anything she feels sorry for her husband, a communications director for a major computer company, for whom a 7am to 10pm working day is not uncommon."It takes a lot of juggling but I do feel I have it all," she says. "I am always there for my kids and I also have my career. I am luckier than my parent's generation."

For Mrs Dell, womanhood was different. She says the Sixties, which heralded the great surge for women's rights and sexual equality, almost destroyed her marriage.

Then nearing 40, Mrs Dell, then the mother of three teenagers, was sick of being "the little woman". The Sixties made her restless for independence, freedom and careers.

"When I got married I was already almost too old," laughs Mrs Dell. "The panic was already on because all the best men would be gone. "

Mrs Dell was academic but ended up a secretary. "My family felt my career was to get married and have children. I was a great conformist."

She had already turned to marriage guidance counselling and voluntary work for stimulation. But the liberation of the swinging Sixties saw her start training as a psychotherapist.

"I can still remember the thrill of my first wage packet." said Mrs Dell. "It is a big joke in my family but I still have to have my own bank account. It represents my independence."

Mrs Dell's independence meant a "rocky" few years for her marriage. She says her husband felt neglected as she struggled to spread her wings but today their marriage is stronger than ever.

Endless

struggle in benefit trap

LONE PARENT

Lynn Colvine, 24, lives in a council home in Newcastle with her three children; Samantha, five, Dwayne, three and Ashley, eight months.

Lynn Colvine loves her children with a passion, but coping on benefit is an endless struggle.

"When it has taken two hours to get them to go to sleep, sometimes I'm tearing my hair out," she said. "It is very hard emotionally coping on your own. Sometimes in the evening when there is nothing on the telly I just sit down and cry."

She says that the father of her oldest two children never sees them and that the father of the youngest only sees the baby briefly at the weekend. "It would help if they would even take the kids a couple of hours a week to give me a break, but they don't."

Ms Colvine was 18 when she met her first partner, who was 13 years her senior. When that relationship failed, she moved in with another man who was keen for her to have a third baby. They split up while she was pregnant and, like the first, he has moved on to another family.

"I think men are pigs," she says. "Really. They are all nice at first, until they get you under their thumb. Then they walk away, take their freedom and leave you tied."

Ms Colvine's own parents split up when she was 10. Her mother raised her alone until she remarried five years later. She remembers her mother having a hard time. Her own experience has been just as tough. Every week her pounds 76 income support disappears within hours of issue, swallowed up by the previous week's debts.

"My mum is so disappointed. She wanted me to make something of myself. I got seven GCSEs and I wanted to go to college but my parents did not have that sort of money. I got a job in a factory so I could earn my own."

Today she is anxious to earn again. But a job that would fit in with young children would not pay enough to make giving up benefits worthwhile. Child-care costs are prohibitive. She feels trapped. "I still want a career," she says. "I want to go to college when the youngest goes to school. I would love to earn my own money and not rely on men or benefits. I still want to make something of myself."

A local National Children's Home project recently came to her aid. "If it wasn't for that, I would be stuck in the house all day. Many women here are bringing up kids on their own so they know what it is like."

Being married is not the be all

SINGLE WOMAN

Pip Hesketh, 31, is unmarried by choice. Her preoccupation at present is her career.

Pip Hesketh has three married brothers and is aunt to three "gorgeous" nephews. "So when will it be your turn, Pip?" is asked at every family wedding.

There is no short, glib answer. Pip is unmarried, not because she has anything against the institution or because she does not want children - "mad aunt Pip" adores her nephews.

As with many of her friends, it is just that a lasting partnership has not yet materialised and finding a man with whom to start a family is not the overriding ambition. "Marriage isn't the be all and end all of everything anymore," she shrugs.

Like many women of her generation she has cohabited. She was only 20 when she lived with a boyfriend but soon found the relationship too restrictive. She is glad that it did not lead to marriage or children. That would have prevented her from travelling the world - she recently returned from an 18 month spell in Australia - and exploring her own potential.

At the moment Pip's preoccupation is her career switch from social work to graphic design. She recently became a student again. She loves social work but felt "a bit of me was not being explored".

"I think as you get older you become much more aware of yourself, your own needs and your potential. Women have enormous power now. They are realising the millions of different things they can do other than be mothers and wives. The Nineties is all about discovering that power. I just feel there is so much open to me. But there will be a lot more change before women are finished. It's almost like a child discovering it has feet. At some point we will run."

Change for women, she says, means disruption for men. Some men will welcome the opportunities that offers, others find it threatening.

Pip has just split up with a boyfriend. She knows many men but rarely meets one she wishes to take on as a partner. "If you are happy with your life finding the right match is increasingly difficult. You tend to narrow down the possibilities."

There is no pressure to marry in her own social circle. "In London it is much more the norm to be single. You don't feel under a microscope."

She admits she is more confident of a role as mother than spouse and fears the damage separations do to children. She believes more couples are making a positive decision not to have children now the social pressure to do so has eased. There is a long way to go, she says, but there has never been a better time to be a woman.

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