Passion for long hours punishes women

They rush back to the office after giving birth and work 12-hour days - but it's not enough for today's bosses. By Nicholas Pyke
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The culture of long working hours in Britain is condemning women to second-class jobs, household drudgery and a poverty-stricken old age, according to the government body responsible for fighting sexism at work.

The culture of long working hours in Britain is condemning women to second-class jobs, household drudgery and a poverty-stricken old age, according to the government body responsible for fighting sexism at work.

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has told The Independent on Sunday that it cannot eradicate discrimination until employers start promoting shorter hours, allowing women to care for children as well as holding down jobs. Britons work the longest hours in Europe and the result, says the EOC, is that mothers and carers are driven to the margins of employment or out of work.

Jenny Watson, deputy chair of the EOC, said: "Where you have an economy which expects people to work extremely long hours, you're going to block the rise of women to the top, because women still have primary responsibility for looking after the family. Often we see women end up in poverty when they're elderly, because they have taken time out of the labour market to look after children or sick relatives."

Diane Winship, a 35-year-old City accountant, claimed last week that she was forced to choose between a gruelling working week, despite the fact that she had a young child, or quitting her job. A request to work part-time was refused. She also said that a Jobcentre advised her to remove her 16-month-old daughter from her CV because it could prevent her finding work.

Ms Winship's case has struck a chord with thousands of women. One in three mothers have given up or turned down a job because of their children, recent research revealed. The same is true of only one in 10 fathers.

Dr Petra Boynton, a member of the British Psychological Society and an expert in women's issues, said government intervention is long overdue. "This is obviously about gender and politics, but it's also about parenting," she said. "We also need proper, affordable childcare facilities, which the Government promised but never delivered."

The 1,000 women who take their employers to industrial tribunals each year, alleging discrimination after becoming pregnant, are the tip of the iceberg, says the EOC, whose investigation into the treatment of pregnant women will be published in the autumn.

"People's lives have changed enormously since the Fifties. Work hasn't," Ms Watson said. "Women and men have caring roles and roles as economic providers, and these need to be balanced."

The Government is attempting to promote women-friendly workplaces by sponsoring a series of masterclasses to show companies how they can dispel macho attitudes. It has also established a Women and Work Commission to look at the gender gap in pay which sees women who work full time paid up to 18 per cent less than men and an astonishing 40 per cent less for those in part-time work.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, believes a flexible workforce results in a happier, more efficient workforce.

"The macho long-hours culture does nothing to promote effective working," she said. "A good work-life balance can deliver happier, more loyal and more productive employees."

The EOC remains highly critical, however, of ministers' continued failure to embrace new European rules that limit workers to a 48-hour week. The DTI praises companies such as HSBC, where senior executives have reduced their office hours, and BT, where a large proportion of its staff works flexibly.

But Ruth Lea, director of the Centre for Policy Studies and former head of the Institute of Directors' policy unit, said women had to make a choice.

"To imply that it is discrimination because more men than women get promoted is a distortion of the word," she said. "I would call it reward. If you want to have a family you have to decide what comes first."

'When I left at 5.45pm to pick up the baby they said, "Half day?"'

At 30, Carol Savage was earning £70,000 a year as a marketing director when she became pregnant with her first child. She returned to her firm, where she had been for four years, after four months' maternity leave, and lasted only another six months.

"The company was very good in allowing me to work flexibly," says Carol, now 38. "But every time I left at 5.45pm to pick up my baby people would say 'Half day again?' - all those snidey comments. I used to work 12 hours a day, but they would say you're not committed any more. "I've an MBA, I'd spent 12 years in marketing. I didn't want to throw it away because I had kids, but I didn't want to hand over my kids to a nanny either. You can have both, but you have to understand that you can't have full amounts of both."

Carol, pictured with her three boys, aged eight, six and one, lives in Elstree, north London. She quit her job and launched Flexecutive, a recruitment consultancy that finds clients part-time or flexible work - initially taking a £50,000-a-year pay cut.

"We have 6,000 teachers on our books who want to job share," she says. "We have to persuade schools that it can work. Part-time workers can add value to any organisation, and flexible workers are highly motivated, because they want to hold on to the job they've got."

'To have a family of three and a career proved too much'

Deborah Garrett managed to cope with her senior job as a director with the Blood Transfusion Service and her two children, now aged 10 and seven - but only just. When her third child came along two years ago, she knew she "couldn't go on".

"Both my husband and I worked very long hours, but somebody had to drop the kids off and pick them up and that rested with me. I was doing a nine-to-five job, then picking the kids up, doing tea, homework, putting the kids to bed and then starting work again until 10 or 11."

When Deborah, 39, and her husband decided to have a third child they knew something would have to give."The choices were to go for an au pair or nanny. But I would have felt I wasn't enough of a parent. I tried to go back part-time, but then I felt I wasn't enough of an employee. So the solution was for me to stop work."

For a while Deborah worked as a self-employed management consultant, but that went out of the window with child number four. Her children are now aged 10, seven, two and six months, and although she can't envisage a return to full-time work, Deborah, who lives in Edinburgh, hopes to go back to management consultancy.

"To have a family and a career when working long hours proved too much. It doesn't matter how flexible you are if you are expected to work long hours to succeed. Men get away with it because women feel they have to do it."

Andrew Johnson