Is a woman's place in the home?

How about this for progress: support for the idea of working mothers is actually on the decline...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A new study by Cambridge University has discovered that the proportion of people who believe that women can go to work without family life being affected is actually lower than it was ten years ago. And depressingly, that holds true for both men and women: in 1998, 51% of women and 46% of men thought it was perfectly doable, but by 2002 this had shrunk to 46% of women and 42% of men. Apparently fewer of us now believe that women really can ‘have it all’ (if having a job and children actually does consitute 'all', which is a moot point).

The study, which was carried out by sociology expert Professor Jacqueline Scott, compared the results of various social attitude surveys from the last three decades (including the International Social Survey Programme). It found that support for gender equality in the workplace appears to have peaked in the 1990s in the UK – and is now actually in decline.

Scott suggests that there’s ‘mounting concern’ about the effect on family life and the welfare of children when Mum decides she wants to go back to work – not to mention the consequences for her own wellbeing. ‘It is conceivable that opinions are shifting as the shine of the 'super-mum' syndrome wears off, and the idea of women juggling high-powered careers while also baking cookies and reading bedtime stories is increasingly seen to be unrealisable by ordinary mortals,’ said Professor Scott.

The report has certainly provoked some angry responses in today’s papers: not because people are disagreeing with the conclusion – although the fact that Scott’s latest figures are now six years old strikes us as slightly dodgy – but because people are indignant that being a working mum is still considered a controversial or difficult choice. And most are (not unreasonably) equally indignant about the fact that similar questions are never asked about working fathers…

It’s certainly a poor reflection on UK plc’s efforts to become more inclusive in the last decade. Gender equality campaigners The Fawcett Society told the Guardian today that the study showed how ‘attempts to shoehorn women into workplaces made by men for men have failed’. As campaigns officer Kat Banyard says: ‘The long working hours culture and lack of flexible working means women are presented with impossible choices... The result? Motherhood carries a penalty and women and men are straitjacketed by gender stereotypes.’

Professor Scott thinks that if we want to devise policies that foster equal opportunities, we need to work out the reasons behind these attitudes: is it because childcare is still seen as a woman’s job, or because women are thought to do it best? But either way, there’s clearly no ceasefire in sight in the battle for gender equality at work...

In today's bulletin:

Bank plays it safe despite further housing falls
Barclays surprises despite profit slump
Is a woman's place in the home?
City women lagging behind on pay
Whole lot of pain for Whole Foods 

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