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Issues - Gender Bias

THE INDEPENDENT Tuesday 8 June 2004

Don't fathers deserve help too? Deborah Orr

There are plans, now being discussed at Cabinet level, for the inauguration of a "government-funded support network for working women, including advice lines, mentors and even a pool of lawyers to aid them in disputes". Apparently, this is the "logical next step" in Labour's policy of encouraging a "work-life balance" and giving opportunities for women with children to find work. Harriet Harman, the Solicitor General, is the driving force behind the policy, and yesterday she had this to say to The Independent "There's a lot of help to help young people get into work, such as the New Deal for lone parents, but what about the women in work? This is about strengthening women's hand at work."

It is admitted that the policy is expected to "infuriate men's groups, who will accuse Labour of singling out women for extra support". But that little detail doesn't seem relevant. If a father finds his employer unwilling to let him arrive an hour later each day, so that he can take his children to school, then presumably he's expect ed to lump it if a mother wants the same thing then advice on how to get what she wants is only a phone call away. What I really don't understand is what is gained from this service being "women only". To women-only refuges I say, "of course". To women- only saunas I say "yes, please". To women-only literary prizes I say "well, If you must". But to women-only government advice on how to combine work and parenthood, I say, "Isn't that rather appalling?"

I don't dispute that there is a hunger for the kind of expertise that may be on offer - although it is sad that work place unions are no longer considered by the Labour government as the sensible channel down which people needing workplace advocacy should be directed. I don't dispute either that such a service would be accessed mainly by women. After all, women are still granted lower pay and fewer rights in the workplace, and simultaneously still do the vast majority of the child care. Therefore, they are the most likely to wish to change their working practices to accommodate this, and the least likely to have the workplace power to negotiate it.

But what I do dispute is that there is any practical reason why this operation has to be "women-only", rather than simply one that would probably prove to be more useful to women and popular with women than with men.

Men do take sole, primary or equal care of their children. They are, and want to be, involved in their children's lives. They are, as well as women, working in low-paid, low-status jobs. They do, as well as women, find themselves working for bullying employers who wish to deny them their rights. They are, in theory being encouraged by the Government to take paternity leave, and seek career breaks to spend time with their families. So why exclude them?

There's no good reason why a telephone advice line has to be a girly happening rather than open to anyone experiencing problems In this area. Is it conceivable that the women using the hotline might slam down their telephone if their call is answered by a man? Is it possible that unless the marketing of the service is themed as pink and floral, then women will not realise that it is relevant to them Or is it that employment law as it affects men is so very different that people expert in the work-life troubles of both sexes could not be recruited? Or Is It possible that the political interpretation - that the Government views this as a way of re-connecting to the women voters it has been losing - is the one that is making this service so attractive to the Cabinet? Is this what feminism has become - a way to make the women repulsed by a war-obsessed Prime Minister vote for him again after all?

No doubt the women championing this initiative believe that they are simply using the opportunity they have In order to push a positive, good-for society feminist agenda. But actually, the feminist agenda, as it affects women, work and children, is now so hopelessly confused that it is almost without meaning.

Many of the women that the New Deal has helped out to work are lone parents who got pregnant in the first place because they believed that bringing up a baby solo is a perfectly viable option. Certainly this is a feminist message. But did Seventies feminists envisage that this view would contribute towards making Britain the European capital for single teenage motherhood? Falling pregnant chaotically, while in a casual relationship, then having a baby, has become socially acceptable. But there is less consensus about whether the taxpayer or the individual should be footing the bill for these irresponsible choices.

Hence, the drive to get lone parents back to work. It's not just about feminism, but about economics as well. It's not just about catching the feminist vote, but also appealing to the moderately conservative person who doesn't want to foot the bill for the fecklessness of young women. Feminists may vote Labour because they see the championing of women's right to have children and a career as feminist policies. But much of the time they're actually about minimising the state's responsibility for some of the less happy aspects of social liberalism.

What, unfortunately, remains feminist, in the least palatable of ways, is the assumption that all lone parents are female, all problems of work-life balance fall to women, and that all single parent families exist because all men are bastards.

Ultimately, the woman-only aspect to this helpline panders to this lazy and repulsive sort of prejudice. Men's groups, rightly, complain that the law does not honour the role of in the lives of children enough. Perhaps if there were a wider understanding of the damage that alienation from their fathers does to children, then more would be done to preserve the paternal relationship when couples part.

But a government helpline that sets out to emphasise the difficulties faced by working mothers, and deny that working fathers might need any advice or help with their own work-life balance, is actually custom-made to reinforce prejudices against fathers. This is because it is designed to attract the votes of women who believe that the exclusion of men from this sort of service is fair.

In fact, in a Britain of estranged parents, some men need this sort of advocacy as des as women. Even men who have plenty of contact with the children of a broken relationship have their problems. By advising female parents and not male ones, the helpline runs the risk of exacerbating rather than minimising the already serious problems faced by fathers in this area.

Many men, for example, can theoretically spend half of all school holidays with their children. Some of these men may find that with the back up of the helpline, the women in the office are more likely to be granted holidays when the children are off school than they are.

In this way, the Government's initiative is sure to help further to marginalise fatherhood, just at the time when it urgently needs to be actively promoted. This idea is discriminatory and divisive. It's anti-children and it's anti-father. It's also, since it panders to the most crude and selfish instincts of political feminism, an insult to the majority of woman as well.

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