Sex war turns into a battle of the mums

Yvette Cooper urges a truce in this week's row between women over home and work
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What preys most heavily on your mind this weekend? Are your thoughts drifting to the memo you forgot to finish before you left work yesterday? Or are you worried about the beef content of the raspberry jelly your daughter ate last week, and how to get the washing done given that the tumble drier has broken down?

In the past, the old cliches about men and women said that your genitals dictated the answer. But, thankfully, the argument has moved on since then - though not very far.

The old divide between work-centred and family-centred living is no longer based simply on strict gender lines. But, according to Catherine Hakim, a researcher at the London School of Economics, a more insidious polarisation still exists. In 1996, the split is taking place between women.

So that's it, girls. Give up struggling to combine work and kids. Deep in your soul you are either one or the other: you have to recognise that you are either a homemaker or career woman.

Hakim's claims have provoked an almighty row in the academic community - a row that this week spilt over into the newspapers. Her target is "feminists". They have, she claims, mistakenly assumed that all women want to live the same kinds of lives as men. Feminists, she says, mistakenly search for obstacles and discrimination in the world to explain the persistent difference between men's and women's lives. The truth, she says, is that lots of womenspurn careers and workplace stress, cheerfully choosing the traditional sexual division of labour in the family. These homemakers are sick and tired of career women speaking for all women.

Phew. This is aggressive stuff from a sociologist. The much-maligned feminists have fought back. Eleven other academics have accused Hakim of absurdly caricaturing their position. She has, they retort, leapt to unjustifiable conclusions on the basis of limited evidence.

Who is right? Not Catherine Hakim. There is a grain of truth in her analysis but her conclusions don't add up. Dividing women up as she does simply does not match with most people's experience - and is even less appropriate for the rising generations.

She is right that we don't all want to live like men. Many men live crazy lives, working far too many hours. Few who call themselves feminists would expect either women or men to have to live their lives in this way.

But most women, even those who choose to stay at home with children, would like the chance to work in paid employment. Hakim fails to appreciate sufficiently that this opportunity is still in effect limited by discrimination and a lack of choice.

Men still do not contribute equally to housework, even when their partners are in full-time work. So mothers who go out to work know that they will in effect do two jobs, be exhausted and have to pay for child care. As a result, there is limited incentive for many low-skilled mothers to go out to work. Unsurprisingly, women who stick with full-time work throughout motherhood are predominantly those with the highest level of educational qualifications - those with the best chance of making the effort pay off.

The biggest danger in this whole debate is that it encourages the idea that women are either careerists or home-makers. Yet increasing numbers of younger women either simultaneously or consecutively try to do both. Women who work part-time are often deeply committed to the jobs they do.

Hakim has, indeed, hit a raw nerve. She criticises the careerists for assuming that everyone wants to make the same choices as they have. She is probably right to criticise them. The first generation of women who have had to make difficult choices in balancing home and work commitments are sensitive about what they have done. Many feel torn, guilty and defensive. Likewise, women who decide to stay at home with the kids feel inadequate and similarly defensive about what they have done.

But Hakim has missed the bigger truth about the younger generation of women. Better qualified and better equipped for the labour market than their male counterparts, they may well have more confidence to combine roles on their own terms. Let's hope so.