Women, Work and the Family

Searching for Equilibrium in a High-Pressure World

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By Father John Flynn

ROME, MARCH 5, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Working mothers face significant discrimination in Britain's work force. This was one of the conclusions of a report published Feb. 28 by the Equalities Review, an independent body of the United Kingdom. The report: "Fairness and Freedom: The Final Report of the Equalities Review," found that women with young children are the most discriminated against at work.

In fact, women with young children face more discrimination in the workplace than disabled people or those from ethnic minorities, noted the BBC in an article on the report published the day of its release.

The study found that a woman with a child under 11 was 45% less likely to be in work than a man. The findings sparked off a round of commentaries in the British press on the difficulties women face in the workplace. Writer Kirsty Scott, commenting in the pages of the Scotsman newspaper the following day, reflected on how becoming a mother means a radical change in a woman's life.

"Becoming a mother should be one of biggest seismic shifts in a woman's life, and one of the best," said Scott, who wrote about the joys many women feel upon becoming mothers.

She also observed that the lower numbers of mothers who work could also be due to a conscious decision by women, and not only as a consequence of discrimination. A number of studies, Scott noted, have found that a majority of working mothers would prefer to stay at home if they could afford to do so. In spite of its frustrations and difficulties, "motherhood is brilliant. Intensely rewarding, deeply fulfilling," Scott added.

Madeleine Bunting, writing for the Guardian newspaper on March 1, observed that many mothers are sidelined due to a lack of flexibility in work arrangements. In addition, picking up a career again after taking a break to care for children is increasingly difficult in an ever-more competitive work environment.

One option is part-time work, but, Bunting explained, only too frequently the quality and pay of this sort of work is normally far below that of full-time jobs.

No room at the top

The combination of motherhood and a lack of flexible working conditions limits the number of women who reach executive positions at companies. The difficulties women have in building a career were examined in an article published by the Financial Times on Nov. 10. A study of top companies in the United States forecast that a decade from now women will account for just 6.2% of chief executives of the largest companies.

Even that will be a big improvement on the current situation. Constance Helfat, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, and joint author of the study, told the Financial Times that the 6.2% figure is more than triple the current percentage.

The study examined almost 10,000 senior executives in the Fortune 1000. Nearly half these companies did not have a single female executive senior enough to be included in official filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission. In addition, just 3.8% of executive directors on boards were women.

On Feb. 21 the American organization Catalyst published its "2006 Census of Women in Fortune 500 Corporate Officer and Board Positions." The study found that women held 15.6% of Fortune 500 corporate officer positions, down from 16.4% in 2005. The number of women holding board seats also went down, to 14.6% of all Fortune 500 board seats compared with 14.7% in 2005.

The situation is similar in Britain, according to data published by the Guardian newspaper Oct. 2. In the top 100 British companies there are only 12 women holding executive director roles.

The article also cited another survey, of 350 companies, that put the number of executive director jobs held by women at 3%. The survey was published by the accountancy firm Deloitte.

Flexibility needed

A call for more attention to women's needs, whether they work at the top or not, was made by Lord Layard, a Labor Party peer appointed by the British government to investigate the state of childhood. In an interview published in the Telegraph newspaper Oct. 9, Lord Layard said that working mothers with young children are put under terrible strain by employers who judge them on the hours they put in and not the quality of their work.

The importance of giving mothers a variety of options in their working arrangements was highlighted in a report released Jan. 30 by the Families and Work Institute, a New York-based think tank.

"Making Work 'Work': New Ideas From the Winners of the Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility," compiles case studies that highlight innovative business practices of employers who have adopted more flexible work practices.

Women are playing an increasingly vital role, making up nearly half of the wage and salaried work force, the report observed. This also means important changes at the household level, with the number of dual-earner couples in the workplace going from 66% in 1977 to 78% today.

In addition, work hours for many employees are climbing, and jobs have become more hectic and demanding. These factors combine to cause pressure among working families, the report commented. It cited statistics showing that 55% of employees feel they don't have enough time for themselves; 63% feel they don't have enough time for their spouses or partners; and 67% feel they don't have enough time for their children.

The report by the Families and Work Institute also commented that in addition to the impact on family life, studies show that flexibility in working arrangements is a critical factor in ensuring workplace effectiveness, and achieving greater job satisfaction.

The need for a better balance between work and family obligations also received support from Australia recently. On Dec. 18 the Courier Mail newspaper published details on an investigation carried out by the University of Queensland into the question of parental leave.

The study confirmed that parents want time with their children. A survey carried out by the report's investigators found that 46% of Australian mothers who took leave and returned to work within 15 months reported that they would have taken longer if they had access to some -- or more -- paid maternity leave.

An essential piece

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in its Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, also has something to say on the issue of women, work and the family. Work is essential, the Compendium notes, as it provides the economic means for sustaining family. At the same time, however, the family sustains work, through the education and formation of family members.

The Compendium (No. 250) argues in favor of a family wage that is sufficient to maintain a family and allow it to live decently. In relation to women, the following number of the Compendium calls for greater recognition of the value of work carried out by women in the household.

The Compendium states: "The work of housekeeping, starting with that of the mother, precisely because it is a service directed and devoted to the quality of life, constitutes a type of activity that is eminently personal and personalizing, and that must be socially recognized and valued, also by means of economic compensation in keeping with that of other types of work."

The family should be seen as playing an essential part in economic life, and should be supported by society and appropriate government policies, the Compendium insists. An ideal still far from being realized.