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Should women just stay at home after kids and stop with all the fuss?

The sound you just heard is an ugly can of worms being opened by UK Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman who has written a very honest, candid and rather extraordinary piece for the UK Daily Mail.

The short version is that she thinks, as an employer, that things have gone too far. The pendulum (in the UK at least) has swung too far in favour of working mothers at the expense of employers and other employees without kids.

After recent legislation in the UK that supports women (and men) wanting to negotiate more flexible hours, maternity leave, job sharing and part-time work, Shulman has come out on behalf of employers to say IT’S JUST TOO HARD to employ women and either they need to harden the fuck up and just get back to their normal full-time jobs after having babies or just stay home and be done with it.

She also says that forcing employers to accommodate the needs of working mothers and their desire to work shorter hours, less overtime etc will lead to fewer women of child-bearing age being employed.

Yowser.

Here is the longer version of her argument, in the form of some extracts from her controversial article:

She writes….

“Nobody can legislate a route through the conflict between work and motherhood.

Nobody can predict the visceral love you feel for your children, the fear you have when they are small that when you are not physically there, they might come to harm.

Neither can laws help the sickening exhaustion of endless, sleepless nights combined with working days and the seeming impossibility of achieving success as a worker, a mother, a wife, even at times as a human being.

But while a slew of government policies are aimed at helping working women achieve a more satisfactory existence, are they not losing sight of the real workplace picture?

And are they ignoring the evidence, not documented but heard in the beat of the tom-toms if you listen hard enough, that some of this legislation might even be harming women’s chances of employment?

I completely understand the decision of any woman to give up their job to stay at home with their children. And it seems entirely reasonable that in many situations a woman who becomes a mother will want to trade in her role for something less demanding.

But what I don’t understand is the idea that you should be able to keep exactly the same job, with all the advantages that entails, and work less for it, regardless of how that affects the office or colleagues.”

Shulman goes on to talk about how her own mother (a journalist in the 50s) took 2 weeks off and and “had to pretend to her male employers that pregnancy was a bit like flu – inconvenient and not worth discussing.” She returned to work because she needed the money and enjoyed her job. Shulman wonders if we’ve gone too far in the other direction…

“Nowadays, the majority of pregnant women I know take close to a year off, during which they are entitled to statutory maternity pay for up to 39 weeks. They return with the expectation and right to have their old job back after 52 weeks.

Except that, when they do return, many of them don’t want exactly their old job back. They want the same role but moulded into a time frame that suits family life better. They want to investigate four-day weeks, flexitime, jobshares, and they often then have another baby and are entitled to take another year off. But is this realistic?

I met a woman last week who heads up a small company. ‘You’re not allowed to say it, but the reality is that the maternity situation is a nightmare. ‘Of course what happens is that the younger ones in the office step up to fill the gap – and,’ she whispered, ‘they’re cheaper.

‘At the end of a year, how much do I really need that person back?’

Successful fashion entrepreneur Anya Hindmarch, who has built her own business while bringing up five children, adds another dissident voice. ‘If we are not careful (and I speak as a mother and an employer), maternity leave and benefits will become too biased towards the mother and not considerate enough for the employer. In which case, it can start to work against women as it becomes too complicated and expensive to employ them. To me, it shouts of shooting ourselves in the foot.’

Alex Shulman -who, as Vogue Editor, has a 90% female staff – is herself a single mother with one son, aged 14, and mentions that she has a live-in nanny because it’s cheaper than a live-out one and her job requires that much help.


“I have never worked a shorter week, partially because I want the full salary to pay for the private education of my son, the help and the house we live in. But it is also because I don’t, at root, think it would be the correct way to do this job.

I realise that most people are not in the same situation. They can’t afford childcare for their babies and their jobs neither pay so well nor are so fulfilling. But it’s not the workers on the factory line, the bank clerks, the farm hands or the Tube drivers who are successfully negotiating part-time deals or who are able to take a year’s maternity leave and then return.

It’s the young professionals, women who are the people I was 20 years ago.”

Shulman also questions how fair it is for women with ‘full-time’ jobs to demand flexible hours and gives examples of women who want to do the school run at 4pm or “make paper snowflakes with your four-year-old while a younger and undoubtedly worse paid and probably childless fellow employee is trying to solve a problem that needs to be dealt with now.”

And she wonders how fair it is to promote staff to cover for their colleagues while on maternity leave and then demote them to their former positions when the new mothers return.

Finally – and controversially – she concludes:

“….while employers certainly should have a duty of care for their employees, shouldn’t employees in turn have a certain duty of responsibility to their job?
How cherished does one feel as a boss by someone who is only at work nine months out of three years, the rest being taken as maternity leave, or by someone who – when resources are already stretched – forces a flexi-time deal?
Women have increasingly broken through that old glass ceiling with determination and, to be honest, helpful employment legislation.
As a result, many are now employers themselves. Let’s not put that progress back by creating a world where the next generation of women workers becomes too inconvenient and awkward to employ and find themselves legislated back into the home.”

Boxing gloves anyone? What a depressing read. I have been in exactly her shoes, managing a staff of women who have wanted flexible or altered working arrangements when they returned to work after having a baby.

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I have also BEEN a woman who wanted a more flexible working arrangement in the months after the birth of my babies.

Sure, as a boss, you smile on the outside and sigh inwardly at the logistical nightmare that often creates for you but so what? I believe it’s worth it. I believe we don’t want to lose the services of women just because they have babies and I believe that in many cases, accommodating them is smart FOR THE EMPLOYER as well as morally the right thing for the women.

But I am a mother myself and that’s my belief. I’m not sure how I’d feel if I didn’t have children or didn’t believe in the fundamental need and right of women to stay working (if they want to) after having kids.

Maybe I’d feel differently if I didn’t have kids and I saw what I thought were women being treated more favourably after having kids. The joke of it is, of course, that there’s not really any such thing as part-time work or flexi hours. Not in many jobs.

In most cases, you’re paid pro-rata (eg: 3/5 of your salary if you work 3 days instead of 5) but you still end up working on those other days or working on weekends or in the evenings to keep up and compensate for the (technically unpaid) time you’re out of the office.

That’s certainly been my personal experience of working ‘part-time’.

What do you think? Are working mothers getting too greedy? Wanting their cake and eating it too? Or should smart employers find ways to accommodate the changing work requirements of mothers?

What about fathers? And if you don’t have kids, are you supportive of working mother’s desires to alter their work lives? How do things work in your workplace?

EARLIER ON MAMAMIA….

The New Young Domestic Goddesses

Having it all, just not at the same time

What do Stay At Home mums DO all day?

The cartoon that made working mothers cry

What’s the right amount of time to take for maternity leave?

I don’t know how you do it – the secret to being a happy mother

Paid maternity leave – are we cracking the champagne yet?