The lesson Cameron needs to learn from Birgitte Nyborg

Our Scandinavian friends have much to teach us.

David Cameron has been in Stockholm this week, expressing his love for all things Nordic from economic openness, to free schools, and the Danish TV series The Killing.

Based on his pronouncements today he's doubtless also been attracted to Borgen, the political drama in which a female prime minister juggles coalition politics and the demands of a young family at the same time as driving through her commitment to equality in the corporate boardroom.

It's a welcome sign as we have a lot to learn from our Scandinavian friends -- and not just about increasing the number of female directors. We could also learn a lot when it comes to supporting the vast majority of working mothers.

As a new report from the Resolution Foundation today shows, motherhood in modern Britain still carries a heavy price in the workplace. More than nine out of ten of those surveyed, switched from full-time to part-time work since having children. Of course, for many women this is a positive choice with mothers wanting the flexibility to work fewer hours, especially when their children are young.

But here's the rub: it also shows that even when making a positive choice, working part-time still carries a very heavy cost. An incredible 44 per cent of women reported that they'd had to take a lower-skilled job when switching to part-time work.

 

By working part-time, do you feel you've had to take a lower skilled job than you would have if you worked full-time?

Working part-time

 

And while these trade-offs affect people in all income groups, those on low to middle incomes are far more likely to face constrained choices and tougher penalties. Compared to more affluent women, those on low to middle incomes are almost twice as likely to feel that they have no choice but to work part-time, and when they do they are 33 per cent more likely to be forced to take a lower skilled job.

Millions feel constrained, having to choose between a more fulfilling and well paid career and family life. As one respondent put it: "I guess just have to accept that career progression is impossible now because I chose to work part-time, employers won't admit it but this is the reality for part-time working mums."

And we're not just constraining parents' choices, we're also harming our economy. Overall the UK ranks 15th in the OECD in terms of levels of female employment. If we caught up with the highest performing countries, up to one million more women would be in the workplace.

The chart below shows the gap between our female employment rate and better performing countries for women of different ages. The story is clear -- it's at the peak years of childbirth that we really fall behind, with mothers having to drop out of the workforce.

 

Female employment gap between UK and better performing countries

Female employment

Given that the UK has the second most expensive childcare in the OECD this is hardly a surprise - nor is the fact that almost half of working mothers say that the lack of affordable and quality childcare is a key barrier preventing them from increasing their working hours.

Here's hoping that there is a sequel to Borgen in which Birgitte decides to highlight the plight of ordinary working mothers and the role that universal childcare plays in enabling them to work: and that someone makes David Cameron watch the box-set.

 

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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“I felt very lonely”: addressing the untold story of isolation among young mothers

With one in five young mothers lonely “all the time”, it’s time for employers and services to step up.

“Despite having my child with me all the time, I felt very lonely,” says Laura Davies. A member of an advisory panel for the Young Women’s Trust, she had her son age 20. Now, with a new report suggesting that one in five young mums “feels lonely all the time”, she’s sharing her story.

Polling commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust has highlighted the isolation that young motherhood can bring. Of course, getting out and about the same as you did before is never easy once there’s a young child in the picture. For young mothers, however, the situation can be particularly difficult.

According to the report, over a quarter of young mothers leave the house just once a week or less, with some leaving just once a month.

Aside from all the usual challenges – like wrestling a colicky infant into their jacket, or pumping milk for the trip with one hand while making sure no-one is crawling into anything dangerous with the other – young mothers are more likely to suffer from a lack of support network, or to lack the confidence to approach mother-baby groups and other organisations designed to help. In fact, some 68 per cent of young mothers said they had felt unwelcome in a parent and toddler group.

Davies paints what research suggests is a common picture.

“Motherhood had alienated me from my past. While all my friends were off forging a future for themselves, I was under a mountain of baby clothes trying to navigate my new life. Our schedules were different and it became hard to find the time.”

“No one ever tells you that when you have a child you will feel an overwhelming sense of love that you cannot describe, but also an overwhelming sense of loneliness when you realise that your life won’t be the same again.

More than half of 16 to 24-year-olds surveyed said that they felt lonelier since becoming a mother, with more than two-thirds saying they had fewer friends than before. Yet making new friends can be hard, too, especially given the judgement young mothers can face. In fact, 73 per cent of young mothers polled said they’d experienced rudeness or unpleasant behaviour when out with their children in public.

As Davies puts it, “Trying to find mum friends when your self-confidence is at rock bottom is daunting. I found it easier to reach out for support online than meet people face to face. Knowing they couldn’t judge me on my age gave me comfort.”

While online support can help, however, loneliness can still become a problem without friends to visit or a workplace to go to. Many young mothers said they would be pleased to go back to work – and would prefer to earn money rather than rely on benefits. After all, typing some invoices, or getting back on the tills, doesn’t just mean a paycheck – it’s also a change to speak to someone old enough to understand the words “type”, “invoice” and “till”.

As Young Women’s Trust chief executive Dr Carole Easton explains, “More support is needed for young mothers who want to work. This could include mentoring to help ease women’s move back into education or employment.”

But mothers going back to work don’t only have to grapple with childcare arrangements, time management and their own self-confidence – they also have to negotiate with employers. Although the 2003 Employment Act introduced the right for parents of young children to apply to work flexibly, there is no obligation for their employer to agree. (Even though 83 per cent of women surveyed by the Young Women’s Trust said flexible hours would help them find secure work, 26 per cent said they had had a request turned down.)

Dr Easton concludes: “The report recommends access to affordable childcare, better support for young women at job centres and advertising jobs on a flexible, part-time or job share basis by default.”

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland