Bad idea: Women don't need work

You may think - if you're a woman with a full-time job - that your career is a way of paying the bills. Perhaps you even think you enjoy it. Not so, says Cristina Odone, a former deputy editor of this magazine and the author of What Women Want, a new pamphlet published by the Centre for Policy Studies. In fact, women are being forced to "buy into the macho way of life" and adopt a "masculine value system".

"Far from being committed to a career," Odone explains, "the overwhelming majority of women would prefer to opt out of it" and spend more time with their families. Among other measures, Odone recommends altering the tax system in a manner championed by David Cameron, reintroducing a policy by which married couples are taxed together rather than as individuals. (She would extend the tax break to cohabiting couples, too.) So, when only one partner is working, the other can claim his or her allowance for tax-free income. Single-earner families would have more money to take home, and, Cameron and Odone have separately argued, the standard of family life would improve.

Clearly, that's the case only if you belong to a specific sort of family: it's not going to do much for the three million children who live with one parent. At the same time, as research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows, this policy would actively discourage potential second earners (usually women) from working, by reducing the financial incentive. Apparently the psychological advantages of work - touted by the Tories when unemployment benefit is the matter in hand - don't apply to women with children.

But this issue aside, Odone's assertion that "the great majority [of mothers] want to stay at home" is not true. The YouGov poll commissioned for her report found that only 30 per cent of mothers would prefer not to work at all. The survey did find that without any financial need to work, only 12 per cent of mothers would take a full-time job - but then only 20 per cent of all respondents said they would work full-time if they didn't have to. Odone's view that mothers "place a low priority on their career and prefer a part-time job that allows them to spend more time with their family" is not proved by those results. They just indicate that everyone would like more time away from work.

This tax break would help some families financially, but ultimately that is not what the measure is about. It is a reward for adhering to traditional values and indirectly a punishment for women who want to have a career as well as a family.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England