The Cinderella trap

Cherie Blair says staying at home can leave you stuck in drudgery, like Cinderella. She escaped. But many women who try to juggle the demands of a boss and a family find themselves working like scullery maids for both. Mandy Appleyard talks to them

Alison works in a factory, but Cherie Blair would probably class her as a scullery maid. She works long, hard hours for low pay, struggles to bring up two children, and feels totally undervalued by her husband, her employer, and the world she lives in.

"Equality doesn't exist in my world. I'm working in a 21st-century sweatshop for the minimum wage with hundreds of other women," says Alison, 31. "All our managers and supervisors are men, who show us no respect or consideration."

She earns the national minimum wage of £4.50 for a 35-hour week. "Is this what equality was supposed to be about? All the crappy jobs in this country are done by women like me, who also do most of the child-caring. Having it all's a joke - we have the worst of all worlds."

Alison is not alone in believing that "women's work" - whether that means the work traditionally done by women in the home or the experience of women in the workplace - is still grossly undervalued, three decades after the introduction of legislation aimed at bringing about legal and financial equality.

Cherie Blair probably thought she was speaking up for women like Alison last week when she gave a lecture on the work-life balance. But her words, spoken in Detroit for a reported fee of £40,000 for a 40-minute speech, sounded patronising and offensive to Alison.

"I could so easily have fallen victim to the Allerednic syndrome - that's Cinderella in reverse," said the Prime Minister's wife, who is also a QC. "You know the story. The prince marries the princess and turns her into a scullery maid."

It was clear from her language that Mrs Blair thought staying at home with the kids very much second best to a career - and a bit of a cushy number. Her husband, while in opposition, was able to "enjoy long vacations at home" with their children, she said.

"Work-life balance isn't an issue for people like me and my husband," says Alison, who does not want her surname made public. "It's a luxury the middle class can agonise about, but for ordinary working folk like us it's just an idea you read about in the papers. We're at the bottom of the barrel."

Alison and her husband, a bricklayer, have two children aged 11 and nine, live in a small, terraced house in Lincolnshire, and drive an 11-year-old car. "By Cherie Blair's definition I'm a lowly scullery maid doing menial work at home and in a factory," she says. "I'd like to think I'm doing what millions of ordinary women do all over the world - working hard to provide what I can for my kids, keeping a nice home, and being the best wife and mum I can be."

Last week, the Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, reminded us that six out of 10 women work in low-paid jobs, and that career sexism is stopping women from going into plumbing, engineering and manufacturing. New figures from the Office for National Statistics also reveal that working women are almost twice as likely to fall below the minimum wage as men.

Alison's day starts at 6am; she's at work by 7am; she clocks off at 3pm and picks the children up from school, then makes tea, washes up, cleans and tidies, washes and irons, and puts the kids to bed.

"I watch telly for an hour if I have the energy, and fall into bed like a dead woman at about 11. I'm permanently shattered, and I feel undervalued at work and at home," she explains. "I have to go out to work because my wage - meagre as it is - means we can pay the gas, electricity and phone bills, run a car, and every two years have a caravan holiday in Wales. Not exactly luxuries, but life would be grim without my wage."

The key concern for Alison and her colleagues is staying on top of job, family, home, marriage, responsibilities, relationships and health. In Britain there's still a 19 per cent pay gap between the average hourly earnings of men and women, rising to 40 per cent for part-timers, while teenage girls earn 16 per cent less than their male counterparts.

Glossy magazines may spin a fantasy about having it all - career, cash, children - but the reality of life for Britain's working women is a rather different story, with an estimated 60 per cent of them trapped in employment sectors where women predominate and pay is low.

The ramifications are enormous, both for individuals and for society. The looming pensions crisis, for example, has been caused at least in part by the fact that most women earn too little to save substantial amounts for retirement.

What many women share is a chronic feeling of being undervalued for the work they do in their job and in the

home. And what they're agreed

on is that an anomalous wage gap can be fully eliminated only if jobs regarded as women's work are valued and remunerated as highly as those done by men.

The Government recognises that tackling "segregated employment" is one way of tackling skill shortages in areas where women are under-represented, such as manufacturing, plumbing, science and engineering. These macho, male-dominated fields tend to deter women, so they end up ring-fenced in jobs which pay the least and include administration, childcare, sales and nursing.

The reality is that until this career sexism can be eradicated - in itself no mean feat - many women will continue to make traditional career choices and remain locked in a low-pay spiral.

The stories on these pages show that some 21st-century men and women can make bold choices about how they live their lives - whether to remain single or get married, whether to have a family, whether to go out to work or stay at home, whether to live a life that's balanced and healthy or give their all to the 80-hour week. But progress has been slower than most people hoped, and these choices are still not available to all. She may have got the tone a bit wrong in America last week, but Cherie Booth Blair - as she is known there - also called for governments to adopt policies to help workers at all levels to balance the demands of work and the family. "This is not a women's issue," she said. "Everybody should be able to enjoy a full life outside work."

As she flops, exhausted, into bed tonight, Alison will surely agree.

The full-time mother: 'I've been made to feel as if I'm letting the side down'

Sally Craig, 45, lives near Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire with her husband Paul, 54, and their three sons - Richard, 13, Nicky, 11, and Matthew, six. She worked as a solicitor then in publishing until she had Richard. She's been a full-time mum ever since. Paul is a lawyer.

I do think full-time mums are undervalued. I know some people see this as the soft option, and there have been many times when I've been made to feel as if I'm letting the side down because I don't go out to work. Men joke about us spending our days at coffee mornings and the shops, but the reality of raising a family at home can be exhausting, and stressful. It's not just men either; other women often seem to resent those who stay at home.

I've had a ball and I wouldn't have missed being at home with the boys for the world, but a full-time mother works hard. When she has babies she can be up at 5am after a broken night's sleep, then does a demanding 14-hour day until, if she's lucky, she gets her kids off to bed at 7pm, when she probably starts cleaning and tidying up.

I had a university education and a good job but I was never desperately career-minded and I really enjoy being around children. I want to go back to work, but not into law or publishing. Ideally I'd want to do just a few mornings a week but I still want to be here for the boys after school and I wouldn't want to work school holidays. It's daunting to think about being back in the workplace after 13 years at home. The thought of an interview is petrifying.

The high-flyer: 'Society supports men more than it supports women'

Dr Spinder Dhaliwal, 40, is a lecturer in entrepreneurship at the University of Surrey. She lives in Hayes, Middlesex, and is single. She has no children.

I have some sympathy with what Cherie Blair said, because marriage and motherhood create enormous challenges in a woman's life, and can be very constraining. I really enjoy the freedom of being single.

Women at work are so often sidelined, and they have to make twice as much noise to be heard. I despair at the lack of progress in true equality, and feel women are still fighting the same battles. Women lack self-confidence. They need more reassurance than men, and they're not as forward as men at selling themselves. This contributes to that feeling of not being valued.

Society supports men more than it supports women. Asian women, for example, need the tacit consent of their partners and families to be in business. If an Asian woman wants to set up in business the community will say, 'Don't be silly, get a part-time job,' whereas with a man they'll say: 'We've got premises! We can lend you money!'

Being single has definitely been a bonus to my career because I've had the energy and freedom to concentrate on it. That said, I never thought I'd be 40 and single - I thought I'd be married with two kids by now.

Until about a year ago I was working a 70-hour week. I did my own academic work, and from 13 I was working in the family grocery business too. But the older you get, the more you value the balance in your life, and I work a 40-hour week now which feels about right.

The woman in a 'man's job': 'There'll be some teasing. You need quite a thick skin'

Ellen Cheesman, 36, lives in Coulsdon, Surrey. She's been a plumber for five years, and has a 10-year-old son, Russell. She's chair of a women's group within the Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering.

Plumbing is still classed as a man's job, so women don't go into it. Simple as that. When you're at school, it's a case of, 'You're a girl so you do cooking, teaching, hairdressing, nursing or childcare.' We're trying to get into schools to talk to girls about plumbing as a profession. There'll be some ribbing and teasing, and you need a reasonably thick skin, but I'm a professional and people recognise that. People think we all go about looking like men and dressed in overalls, but some female plumbers are slim, glamorous, good-looking women in skirts!

If you see a doctor there's a 50-50 chance it'll be a man, but you call out a plumber and there's a 99.9 per cent chance that a man will turn up. I haven't experienced discrimination myself, luckily, but I've heard stories, such as a woman being told: 'I won't employ you because you'll leave if you get pregnant.'

I went into plumbing by default - my estranged husband worked in plumbing education and I did some work for him and realised it was a field that interested me and would fit in well with my life. I'd recommend it to anyone - plumbers earn a good living, you can set your own hours and work when you want, and it's fun. I work more than 40 hours a week, but I have a social life and a reasonable work-life balance.

The working mum: 'I have skills I couldn't use if I was at home with children'

Pauline Robinson, 44, lives in Beverley, East Yorkshire, with her husband Peter, 47, and their three children, Emily, 11, Daisy, seven, and Molly, five. Pauline is a deputy headteacher, and Peter a university administrator.

I've been working full-time for 20 years and the only time off I've had is 12 weeks' statutory maternity leave for each child. Originally I worked out of financial necessity. When I had Emily I was supporting Peter through his degree and PhD. Now it goes far beyond money. Going out to work is more about my role in life, about me being part of society. I have skills and talents which I couldn't use if I was at home all the time with young children, and I don't think we should assume all women are great at raising children under five.

Cherie Blair seems to be suggesting women are appendages of their husbands, and she's in a minefield. Our society doesn't give anywhere near the status it should to domestic work and childcare. There's no doubt I have increased status in society because I have a role outside the home and that's wrong. If women or men believe their skills are best served by being in the home, they should be valued by our society but they're not.

People accept you go out and do a job but they expect you, in my case, to be a 90 per cent timetable teacher with all the preparation and marking that that entails, and to manage the school - then they are sniffy about me letting things go at home. I feel like saying: 'Never mind berating me for the one thing out of 10 I didn't do, what about the nine I've achieved fantastically?

The man in a 'woman's job': 'Staying at home is the hardest job I've ever done'

Gary Northeast, 50, and his wife Marilyn Hunt, 37, live in Dolanog, Powys, with their two-year-old twins Eleri and Siôned. Marilyn is a primary school teacher and Gary is at home with the girls. He also works as a traditional musician.

I've only ever had one negative comment about being with the girls and that was from an old man in the street who saw me pushing them in the buggy and said sneeringly: 'A woman's work is never done, eh?'

I love my kids and I want them to have the best start. I think having me looking after them is a better start than putting them into nurseries. Marilyn's income is more stable than mine, and anyway I wanted to have close contact with the girls. So many fathers only see their children at bedtime, and I wanted to see my children grow up. Girls who bond well with their fathers in early life do better academically and are more likely to form stable relationships with men when they're older.

The authorities in this country are predominantly male and obsessed with working long hours to make money to acquire things. I don't think they even think about the contribution made by fathers staying at home. I'm one of an estimated 155,000 stay-at-home dads in Britain, and this is the hardest job I've ever done. It's difficult to do anything else while I'm looking after the girls.

Ideally I would like to play music full-time, look after my children full-time, and have loads of money. But in the absence of an ideal world, I think we've as balanced a family life as anyone.

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