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No-Win Or Win-Win Gender And Babies Agenda?

March 1, 2006

Choosing if and when to have a baby has never been an easy decision, especially if both partners want to continue in employment.  More recently the debate has shifted a little, and perhaps a deeper understanding is emerging of what ‘work-life balance’ is about.  But the question still to be asked is how can you get it right, if you’re a mum who wants to make her way in the world of work?

History or Herstory?
Fact is, for the past fifty years it’s been even more complicated than for the years before then.

Whatever is thought by those with shorter memories, the time from the end of World War II (1945) until the end of the sixties, and well into the seventies, was dreadful for women wanting to maintain their families and their careers.

The landmark equality legislation of the 1970’s certainly changed things for the better… but even I found myself in a situation, early in that time of change when ‘the family’ arrived, of having to resign my full-time post and then apply again for my job, as a part-timer. Maternity leave had never been taken by anyone at the college where I then taught, and anyway it was a mere four weeks or bust (which even after resigning was not much less than what I had, before I went back as a part-timer).

Strange then how, during WWII (I report here from the history books, not personal recollection), there was all sorts of support for ‘working women’, so it could be done when the will was there. But at that time of course, sadly, the men actually weren’t ‘there’ as well….

Improved, but still problematic
So I don’t go at all with the idea of some young women today that ‘it’s harder now than it was for our mums’ – who, it is I gather supposed, just had to work for ‘pin-money’, or else stayed at home supported by a bread-winning spouse who could earn for the family; for most of us I suspect that only happened on The Archers.

Nor of course do I believe that 1939-1945, with all its horrors, was a time when women always thrived. But classic films such as Rosie the Riveter (about a group of female engineering production workers in New York in the ’40s) demonstrate well the capability and willingness of women to take on ‘men’s jobs’ when they have to.

And nearer to home, I discovered in my own research in the 1970s that women who had entered academic science during the 1940s had a better chance of professional progression than younger ones, who had to compete with the men.

Complex judgements and issues
No, the issues now more complex than they were either when the need for skilled workers required women to take the job on, or indeed when the campaigns for basic rights (oh heady days!) were still to be won.

It’s rare for anyone today to announce their outright hostility to women – though there are many serious and shocking stories still to be told. The formal legal battles, if not the wage-related ones, have been quite largely secured. It’s beginning at last to cost those who don’t grasp equality a lot of money.

But that doesn’t resolve everything. We read daily of ‘reasons’ why women ‘should’ only have their children in a very narrow age-slot; and why they ‘must’ keep close physical contact with their babies for a considerable time. On a personal level these are harder things to deal with, than is straightforward sexist write-off. Psychological pressures can cause real personal pain; for fair-minded people sexism just causes anger.

Where’s the truth?
I don’t think there is a single truth in all this – except that no way is it ‘just’ a ‘women’s dilemma’. Whoever heard of a baby that didn’t have a dad somewhere along the line?

My recollection is that these psychological influences on decisions about having a family were always there, lurking in the scenes; but in previous decades we’ve had to concentrate on rights as such. Now young women (and their partners) have to make personal judgements, because genuine choice does at least to some extent exist.

It was never, ever, easy. But perhaps if real choices start to be made by women and men together, the climate might begin to change so that at least most folk understand and respect the dilemmas and decisions we all have to make, when we bring (or decide not to bring) babies into the world.

The expression ‘work-life balance‘ could be about to become genuinely meaningful at last.

A version of this article was first published in Diverse Liverpool: the gender issue, in March 2006, pp. 113-115.

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