Sod real equality of opportunity - in this economy, we all have to go to work

Like Nick Clegg, I also value equality for parents, not for “a stronger economy” but for its own sake.

A lifelong feminist, before my own kids arrived I was completely committed to the idea of shared parenting. Then my sons came along and I was confronted with that essential, almost physical need to be with them constantly. It wasn’t just breastfeeding but a broader consciousness of what “motherhood” truly meant, as though labour had awakened the… Only kidding. By month five of maternity leave I was climbing the walls. My return to spreadsheets and payslips couldn’t have come a moment too soon... (Again, only kidding. It was all about the cold, hard cash.)

Being a full-time career bitch from hell (as opposed to a lazy part-timer or a fluff-brained, cupcake-baking stay-at-home-mum), I ought to welcome Nick Clegg’s latest announcement on shared parental leave. After all, I want to be one of those “women up and down the country realising their potential, keeping their independence, fulfilling their dreams”. Indeed, it wasn’t for those pesky kids, it appears that my life would already be a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel. And yet I find myself reading Clegg’s depressingly titled "Greater Equality for a Stronger Economy" speech and feeling really bloody miserable. It all sounds so tiring. “You won’t get to 30 and suddenly have to choose: motherhood or work”, says Nick. Well, thanks for that. I might be a breeder but I’m already doing my bit for the economy (and equality, or so it would seem). I’m not complaining but please – will you get off my case? Feminism – and the fact that “we” (by which I don’t assume the likes of me) “have got so much better at telling young women: the sky’s the limit” – has made me into the obedient little economic unit I am today. Sure, I might spend my evenings reading Thomas the Tank Engine, but it doesn’t stop me being a Really Useful Engine come the next day.

Because that’s what all this feels like to me. Back to work, mummies. None of this stay-at-home slacking, not when “there’s no money around”. Sod real equality of opportunity. Sod extending paternity leave (or rather, let’s revisit it “when the economy is in a stronger state”). Sod the fact that the domestic arrangement Clegg derides – “Mum in the kitchen, Dad in the office” – is no longer affordable for most of us anyhow. Equality, if it means anything, means the important people herding everyone else back into low-paid jobs while telling them they’re realising their dreams. Excuse me if I find it less liberating than it sounds. Unlike Sam Cam, who might work two days a week but admits to “spending a lot of time thinking about work on her days off”, I get to be at work every single day. If it’s economically beneficial equality they’re after, the Coalition should look closer to home. Smythson are paying their creative consultants way too much and it’s preventing them from “realising their potential”.

I have nothing against paid work. There’s one rather obvious reason why it’s better than unpaid work (especially true if you’re female, since rather than waste your income on supporting a family, you get to spend it all on shoes or something). I was never stay-at-home mother material and would have gladly shared more of the leave I had following the birth of my children. And now, since both my partner and I work full-time anyhow, aren’t we precisely the model that Clegg’s hypothetical “young couple” should look up to? Follow us, young pioneers! No more shall “fathers miss out on being with their children” while “women lower their ambitions for themselves”. Way-hey! Three Men and a Baby domestic bliss for Daddy, Working Girl office advancement for Mummy. It’ll be just like the eighties, only minus the shoulder pads and champers (and the relatively small gap between top- and bottom-level pay, even if we didn’t think it small at the time).

It’s not just that flowery pro-equality language has been hijacked in order to sweeten the pill of making those who can’t afford to work unable not to. I have real issues with Clegg’s explanation of how gender equality will be promoted through this exploitative proposal. In Nick’s post-feminist vision, motherhood is to blame for all the hurdles faced by women in the workplace: “the moment they start planning a family, their options begin to narrow”. Hence the key to equality lies in getting Mummy back to work sharpish, breastpump in hand, providing Daddy can step into the breach. Yet is it really that straightforward? In a list of major factors explaining the pay gap, the Home Office website puts just 16 per cent of the gap down to “the negative effect of having previously worked part-time or of having taken time out of the labour market to look after a family”. Meawhile, 36 per cent remains unaccounted for, “suggesting discrimination may still be an important factor” (imagine that!). And if one is looking for evidence that plain old discrimination against workers for being female still exists, it’s not hard to find. Research suggests that if you are female, requesting a pay rise is more likely to have a negative impact on how you are perceived. You might have the best qualifications for a role, but if you’re not male, it might not be qualifications they’re after. As Cordelia Fine explains in Delusions of Gender, employers aren’t always conscious of discriminating and employees don’t always know they’re experiencing discrimination. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but if you blame its effects on the indisputable fact that some women bear children, you can make it appear invisible. 

But even if the gender pay gap were all down to the expectations we place on women when they become mothers, is three years long enough to sort the whole thing out? Because young couples, that’s all you’re being given. Three years in which to overcome the prejudice and guilt-mongering of employers, friends and relatives, in which to ignore the prod-prodding of the “Mum’s gone to Iceland” culture that surrounds you, in which to put your own financial priorities on hold in the name of the greater good that is economically prudent equality. New flexible leave laws come into effect in 2015 and then, says Clegg:

The next stage will be assessing if couples are using this new freedom. So flexible leave will be reviewed in the first few years, by 2018, and extending paternity leave will be looked at as part of that.

I’d imagine that whatever happens we still won’t be able to afford/prioritise extended paternity leave by 2018. But by that time we’ll know it doesn’t matter anyhow. The only couples who are interested in shared parenting are eccentrics such as me and my partner and those who can actually afford childcare which fits around their shift patterns. The rest of humankind will have proven once and for all that unpaid work is women’s work and that that’s what nature intended.

I’ll be honest, though. If I were to have another child, I am sure that my partner and I would want to make use of this new leave structure. I’d have a few months of being typically socially inept at baby group before heading back to the office with my trusty electric pump (which, if you’re sleep-deprived enough, appears to wheeze out the theme to Byker Grove while you’re expressing). I’d make use of the new legislation, but the fact is, ungrateful sod that I am, I’d just get on with it. I don’t see myself standing at the photocopier, breast pads ruining the cut of my work shirt, thinking “thank you, Nick! Thank you for allowing me to help men like you sort out the economy!”. The truth is, I value my job but I also value equality, not for “a stronger economy” but for its own sake. You might think that’s the only way you can sell it but alas, when you unpick the rhetoric, you’re not selling us equality at all.

Samantha Cameron works two days a week but admits to “spending a lot of time thinking about work on her days off”. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.