Leading Article: More help for working women

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The Independent Online
ADVERTISING people will not be surprised to learn from our Home pages today that women generate a larger share of the household income than they used to. They know this because their industry has had to keep pace. Adverts for food and clothes are no longer aimed only at women; likewise, adverts for cars or life insurance, if they are to work, can no longer be pitched only at men.

People with part-time jobs - many of them women with children - now account for 23 per cent of the British labour force, double the level of France and four times that of Italy. If the Government wants to make the workforce more flexible still, it must do more to help women with children go out to work if that is what those women want. That means better childcare provision; not necessarily by providing extra subsidies for nurseries, but by encouraging companies and local communities to provide low-cost places for children whose mothers would otherwise be unable to go out to work.

Many firms have moved full-time workers over to part-time employment in order to save money on sick pay, holiday pay and pensions - part-time workers do not have the same rights to such payments as full-timers. In future, carrots for the employer should not be sticks for the employee. If the National Insurance contributions ceiling were based on hourly wage rates rather than on total pay, for instance, there would be more incentive to make highly paid jobs part-time.

Trade unions are beginning to reconsider their opposition to the shift from 'proper' full-time male jobs to part-time female work. Surveys suggest that employees are often happy to accept more free time in return for less money; they also like to have the option of working longer shifts on fewer days, which allows them to take long weekends and to shop or play sports during the week. Instead of opposing part- time work in principle, wise unions will concentrate on extracting the most favourable terms for their members.

Thanks to the feminist movement, more fulfilling jobs are open to women today. But there has been a side-effect: the status of those who spend time at home to look after children has been reduced. The result is that men are often unwilling to spend more time with their children even though their partners may be working longer hours; and, absurdly, women too often come home from a demanding working day to make dinner while their partners read the paper or relax with a drink.

Such attitudes are slow to change, but companies can help. With imagination and technology, managers can treat part-timers with the same respect they afford full-timers, allowing them a crack at senior jobs as well as junior. Why, shareholders might ask, should employers care about making both members of a couple happier and more fulfilled and better parents to their children? The answer is simple. Because they will then work more productively.