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Why is three children too many? The government's hypocritical stance on benefits

The government is limiting child tax credits to two children. But its policies on the "right" number of children don't add up. 

Does the government want pregnant women to have their babies or not? I only ask because things have got very confusing of late.

On the one hand, we see money raised by George Osborne’s so-called “tampon tax” going to the anti-choice charity Life, whose stated aim is to make abortion “a thing of the past”. On the other, new rules coming into force today mean payments for tax credits and Universal Credit will be limited to the first two children in a family.

So should you have that third baby or not? What if someone from Life suggests you should? Does the VAT you paid on Tampax make you more responsible or less?

These are questions that nobody wants to answer, not least because the government is not especially interested in what motivates a woman to carry a baby to term. The stated reasons change according to the policy being enforced. If you want to please the conservative right, it’s having a termination that’s selfish. If you want to blame the poor for being poor, it’s giving birth.

According to a Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman the current benefits structure is “unsustainable and not fair to the taxpayer and families who support themselves solely through work". In one horrendously disingenuous sentence, it is implied that to be paid so little – or not at all – that one relies on tax credits must mean one is working less hard than others. “Work is the best route out of poverty,” we are informed, by someone who has clearly never heard of unpaid labour or zero-hours contracts.

George Osborne, one of four sons born into enormous wealth, argues that those in receipt of tax credits should “face the same financial choices about having children” as those wonderful, virtuous people who “support themselves solely through work”. It’s not just a plainly ridiculous statement, it’s an unbearably callous one. Poor people never, ever “face the same financial choices” about anything.

“Incentivising” work by withdrawing additional support for those in need doesn’t help anyone out of poverty, and Osborne knows this. It’s the wealth equivalent of “not seeing colour” with regard to race. Osborne doesn’t see massive, rising pay disparities and unaffordable childcare so why should you? Doesn’t pointing them out make you “the real bigot”, sitting there denying poor people the chance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps alone?

In all this I can see how the hypothetical third baby makes for an easy target. One can make the case that having any children at all is a selfish, environmentally ruinous choice. Then again, someone, somewhere has to produce the generation who’ll care for us in our old age and once you’ve had your first child, having a second can be (tenuously) justified on the basis that he or she will need a companion. By contrast, a third child can be seen as just plain indulgence (indulgence one might occasionally regret, given the amount of work involved, but indulgence all the same).

Why did I have a third baby? I can’t offer any moral justification for it. Because two felt a bit “standard mum”, whereas three was moving towards “proper hardcore mother”. Because I was about to turn 40 and experiencing existential angst over the prospect of no longer being able to reproduce. Because I’d wanted a third baby years ago and decided I wasn’t ready yet, then finally realised I’d never be ready, so might as well do it anyway.

Basically, there is no reason I can come up with which isn’t fundamentally selfish. What I can say is that as an able-bodied, middle-class woman who’s been fortunate enough never to experience a pregnancy that was unwanted, I have no more right to be selfish than a mother of three who has not been privileged in the ways I have. Why should she and her family be penalised? Limiting tax credits to two children is not about making things fairer; on the contrary, it’s about punishing the poor for being poor, all the better to suggest that poverty is a thing one brings upon oneself.

While the children of the wealthy are themselves more likely to become high earners - and hence to class themselves as self-sufficient - they are not of greater value to the world. If anything, they are far more likely to be over-valued in relation to their actual skills and talent. This seems to me a far greater problem than supporting families whose children deserve greater opportunities, not fewer. After all, it’s the reckless reproduction of the rich that lands us with men like George Osborne.

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

Photo: ASA
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re,

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA