A R C H I V E S
Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board
|Women really can have it all ...|
|04/24/02 at 21:22:49|
|Women really can have it all - with a little bit of help |
A female-friendly state can make a significant investment in the future
Wednesday April 24, 2002
There is an industry in scary books. Not thrillers, but real-life scares: eat less salt or you'll get brain disease; why a new plague is coming out of Africa any time now; how the songbirds are disappearing. The only ones to take notice of are the ones that chime with life, the ones that report on something you'd noticed but not articulated already. And this is true of Baby Hunger by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, currently scaring the hell out of American women, and to be published in Britain next month.
Hewlett's thesis is simple and her warning is stark: far too many women who want a high-flying career, or even just a decent job, are putting off finding a partner and having a child until it is too late. Result: a big new group of women who are desperate for children but cannot have them and never will. Research done in America, but thought to apply to Britain too, shows that 42% of high-salary women are childless, and the figure rises as you go up the income scale. But only 14% said they definitely had not wanted children. Babies have become the new frontline in feminist politics.
The "crime" of these childless women is twofold, apparently. First, they bought the 70s promise that new women could "have it all" and could, like many men, rise in the professions while still raising a family. Second, as they pushed down the barriers at work they thought they could buck nature, too. Many discovered to their sorrow they could not: female fertility drops by 50% after the age of 35 and by 95% after the age of 40.
However much money you spend on it - fertility treatments, IVF and the rest - the chances of having your first baby in your 40s are worryingly small, and that's assuming you have managed to find a man who is not already married, or gay, or having his own midlife crisis and chasing teenagers.
The truth is, we know these women. These are the female role models up and down the length of modern Britain, the composed executives and respected academics, the professional musicians, doctors or entrepreneurs. They are women we are proud of, with their glossy self-confidence, well-preserved good looks, their familiarity with the culture of after-work drinking, their chic two-seater cars. Some, of course, have no desire for children at all. But most have been delaying - after that promotion and then when I've shown I've earned it and then it is too late.
Men of their status are far more likely to have a spouse and children. Some men undoubtedly are scared off by the very success that the childless woman has achieved; they want a younger, more submissive mate. Hewlett's is only the latest in a whole series of books which suggests women should give up the struggle to be like men. We have to choose: stop trying so hard at the career, look around for a good bloke earlier, prepare for children in your late 20s or early 30s. And, presumably, leave the career field at that rather crucial stage to the men, just like the old days.
Although Hewlett is Welsh by origin, her approach and attitude are thoroughly American. She confronts the problem in a self-help way, telling women to change their behaviour, adjust their expectations and, by implication, stop howling for the moon. Men can rise to the top and still have a family at home. Women can't. It's that simple. Get real.
But there is one crucial part of the equation this approach misses. It is politics and the power of progressive government. From the factory acts to the legalisation of abortion, greater chances for ordinary people and for women of all kinds have come about not simply through individuals "coping" but by changes to society's rules. I am not suggesting, obviously, that governments can tell people when to marry, but they can and should help iron out some of these huge differences in the life opportunities of men and women.
We are, by any standard, a rich country and as such we have choices about how we spend our riches. Gordon Brown's Budget reminded us of that in at least two obvious ways. After nearly 20 years in which Britain seemed to define wealth in private terms - by house prices, new cars and the latest gadgetry - he diverted a bit more wealth to public health. So far, instead of being booed for it, he has been widely and wildly applauded. And with child tax credits going direct to the carer, he continued his quiet redistribution in favour of families, particularly poorer, working families.
Yet there is much more to do. If having children is more valued by society and made more financially attractive through the tax system, then women will be given extra incentives to take time out of their careers before it's too late. If long hours were discouraged, with the extension and proper enforcement of the maximum working week, then some of the pressures on men and women to put in the ludicrous hours of today's ambitious professionals would be lifted. They might have a little quality time in which to meet one another and get hitched before the age of 35.
These may seem unreasonable, impossible ideas. But what is the tax system today except an armoury of goads and bribes, designed to make people behave in a way society regards as good? It discourages smoking, boozing and gas-guzzling company cars. It encourages saving for retirement, working, training and home ownership. Our society is defined in part by the choices expressed through the tax system.
Let us be clear, too, that we are not talking only about high-flying professional women. More than 60% of mothers now work - some from choice, the majority from economic necessity. The logical extension of the argument that says women can't have it all is that these working mothers must simply accept second best at work: after all, they have children, what can they expect?
Either we are content for there to be a kind of social apartheid in child-rearing - basically, women choose to have careers or babies but are discouraged from hoping for both. Or, to be brutal, the childlessness choice, for men as for women, is made less financially attractive. Oooh, unfair, I hear the childless workers howl.
But let me remind them that they need the next generation of doctors, road-builders, policemen and national insurance-payers just as much as everyone else. We could become a rich society that spends less of its money on gadgets and house prices and a little more on buying the time and providing the incentives for well-balanced families.
This is not, as Hewlett would have us believe, a self-help issue. Nor is it an area where women must accept defeat and go back to the kitchen. There is much that can be done - by state action, from this supposedly female-friendly government. Scare stories are only scary if there is no way out.
Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board