Issues - Gender Bias
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
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
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
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
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.