Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Labour's new childcare policy - Is this what a feminist looks like?

Ed Miliband has promised 8am-6pm childcare. But will this be enough for women? 

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Rosie Boycott, founder of Spare Rib Magazine in 1972, speak at the Other Club, a pop up club for women set up by Joy Lo Dico. Rosie was utterly wonderful; she's long been a bit of a hero of mine, and became more so as she talked about the horrors of the society that gave birth to Spare Rib. It's astonishing to think that my mother grew up in a world where women couldn't buy a car without having a male relative's counter-signature, his permission, to buy it. Where the apparently 'alternative' press was run by the Old Etonian former classmates of the editors of The Times and The Telegraph, just the ones who wore paisley shirts rather than tweed and took drugs rather than drinking whiskey. And, most horrifically, where many women couldn't work after they had children because there was no state childcare provision for children under school age. So your options were beg your parents, fork out for an expensive nanny or stay at home.

Oh wait, hang on. Doesn't that last bit sound familiar? It's now 2013; over 40 years since Rosie and her colleagues began their calls for workplace equality and equal opportunity, and still women are lightyears behind their male colleagues in the upper echelons of business, politics, and other employment fields. All of four FTSE-100 cpmpanies have female CEOs. Only 20-odd per cent of UK parliamentarians are women, which puts at a gloriously ambitious global average that takes into account Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. That's right, people, Saudi Arabia, the torchbearer for women's rights that plans to allow female citizens to actually vote after 2016. Wowza, go us!

40 years since Rosie first asked for childcare to be made available, and we still don't have universal or even means-tested early-years provision. And I'd like to make a case that this remains a basic starting point for equality, not an aspiration for the future. All very well for Ed Milliband to promise 8am-6pm care for children of primary school age, it's a brilliant start but it doesn't solve the imbalance of expectation created right from the birth of the child. Now, I want children very much, but I realise that having them will require some degree of sacrifice. Farewell morning gym sessions, weekend lie-ins and manicures. However, I don't see my career as something up for the chop in order to procreate, but this sad fact remains: until the day that women are no longer the default primary carers, it won't be as easy to make the leaps up the career ladder we deserve to. Hirers will continue to look at women in their early 30s, at the peak of their professional abilities, and ask themselves, 'Is she a sound investment? Will her priorities lie at home for the next ten years? Will we have to make her part time, let her go home early to pick up children, have her work from home when Granny is ill?'

Until men are as likely to take on these burdens (and, much as I love and want children, the little b*ggers are whacking great burdens) as their wives and partners, the playing field will never be level. So here are my handy policy solutions - Ed, Nick, Dave, feel free to plagiarise if you'd like to.
Make like Finland, and give mothers three months' parental leave and fathers exactly the same, to be taken consecutively. So if Dad doesn't want to stay home for three months covered in regurgitated milk and smelling very slightly of poo, the family loses those three months. Harsh, but it certainly dispels presumptions. As a starting point we could even be less ambitious - at the very least allow couples the option of splitting the time equally, rather than the feeble two weeks that fathers are currently given.

And let's get some early years childcare going. I know it's expensive, but perhaps we could add just a tiny percentage onto corporate tax to fund it? Ed Balls suggested an increase to bank levy, which seems to me essentially bank-bashing - a fun passtime but I think there's a real case for the policy, and I don't want it to be pushed to one side when the climate changes and bankers are no longer the universal whipping boys. No, corporations should take this on because they're going to benefit so massively, from being able to avoid having to make arrangements for parents to work flexibly to accommodate care arrangements, but mainly from having the widest possible pool of workers to choose from, as more women and men are able to carry on working throughout their best, most productive years. An all-round win!


1 comment:

  1. I think this blog misses the point a little. While I'm a fan of many policies aimed at supporting parents (whether that’s the mother or father) to get out to work, I feel, sometimes, the role and responsibilities of parenthood is over-looked/ignored in various policy agendas/political statements. However, as previously mentioned on Facebook, free parental choice and agency is vital in society (with the exception to Section 47 of the Children Act 1989). Miliband’s proposal of 8 til 6 free childcare provision seems to be a little symptomatic to the existing unfriendly social policy surrounding families and does not really get to the bottom of the issue. What about Miliband rethinking through the social policy that exists to support a parent (who may like) to stay at home? We know as The Rt. Hon. Frank Field has advocated, children need to establish strong, healthy attachments with their parent(s) in the very early years of their lives. In fact, the first 1001 days are said to be the most important time in childhood, due to the neuroplasticity and neurodevelopment window period available during this time - optimizing the very best in a child’s potential in later years, not just educationally but also emotionally (discussed a little later). Why compromise this vital time for a career with your child’s early years experience and development? It’s not only a special time for the child, but it’s something parents should do, not a government employee (although there are cases where some children, who under state child protective measures, are safer to be in daycare provisions). Sadly, the media generally portray ‘stay at home [single] mothers’ as a group with words to the effect of: 'living off the state/benefit scrounging'...unless you are a ‘middle-class, yummy mummy’…Alternatively, what about childcare provision in 'out of office' hours, many parents work in jobs (and sometimes more than one) where shift work is necessary? Especially the working classes…

    To give one particular example, I believe the 6-month maternity leave was chosen for a very good reason…breastfeeding! While expressing milk from breasts is an option to allow women to go out to work/carry out with their careers and allow the opportunity for men to stay at home - I’m not so sure it is the best option. Bottle-feeding can provide more flexibility and convenience to the parents, but what about mothers who only want to breastfeed exclusively? There's certainly an army of NCT subscribers who'd argue that. The decision to go out to work and have a career or breastfeed shouldn't be the only options. Bottle-fed babies have a tendency to be at-risk of over-feeding and there are strong (statistical) links with bottle-fed babies and the current obesity epidemic...Breastfeeding isn't just about breast milk...the 'skin on skin' contact has a lot to be said for, especially as a pertinent example of the emotional bond and attachment (which is key to what I mentioned before about neuroplasticity) between the mother and infant. There is also a risk that constantly expressing milk becomes too much of a laborious exercise and then the baby is moved on to formula milk - this has many disadvantages when compared to breast milk including added expenditure on families! Regardless of whether it’s the mother or father, children need a lot of parental contact to thrive, especially while they are 3 years or under. If you’re that career driven that children should be in a day care provision for their entire day, then I feel the decision to have children is an option that should be (re)considered. So, while Miliband’s proposal may seem a good idea on the surface, it certainly should be considered in light of what I’ve mentioned above.

    There are many possibilities to improve and protect the career of hardworking women, but at the forefront, all decisions should be child-centred and in the child's best interest.