by GK Strategy 24th January, 2014
3 min read

Farage and “Worth Less” Women

I recently had a debate with one of my best friends who argued that the Disney princesses are not good role models for our daughters. I disagree: albeit wistful and romantic, they are, on the whole, feisty and headstrong; they are brave, adventurous and they fight back against the challenges life throws at them, like being kidnapped and locked in a tower, or being forced by their fathers to enter into a loveless marriage. No strangers to what Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg has termed “leaning in”, in my opinion these women stand up to the men in their lives, they challenge them and they strive and wish for their happy ending.

It was in the shadow of this debate that I watched with some bemusement Nigel Farage being whacked around the head with a placard by a protestor shortly after making an outrageous remark about women who take time off work to have children being “worth less” to City employers than men. The Ukip leader is known for provoking debate and attracting attention in the process. The public expects it from him. Mr Farage denies that there is discrimination in financial institutions, but that there are “gender imbalances” caused by female employees making “different choices” for “biological reasons”.

The thing is – and I say this as a proud working mother and feminist – I think he has a point. In fact, I think that he is stating the obvious: clearly a City employee who takes 9-12 months (or more) off work to have and raise children cannot sustain the client-related income that a full-time employee can and is therefore “worth less” in monetary terms. That is not to say, however, that she is “worth less” to the company.

Client-related income does not, and should not, constitute the entire value of an employee to a company. If the employer is in it for the long haul, as the child-bearing employee probably is, there is plenty of value to be gained from a committed part-time working mother if the employer is willing to think creatively about how to utilise her resourcefully. This could include assigning her to some tasks that do not require time-sensitive client contact, such as research, training or new business.

In this country, we are privileged to have generous maternity benefits and the right to request flexible working. This is something that our counterparts in other Westernised countries, like the USA, do not enjoy to the same extent. Some women opt to return to work full-time, relying on paid help or their partners and families to make this possible; others negotiate flexible, part-time working hours; some choose not to return to work at all after having children or embark on self-employed projects. Of course, not all women can afford the luxury of such choices.

If, as Mr Farage suggests, companies in the City are only interested in employing and investing in women that either choose not to have children, or to sacrifice their family life in order to compete with those full-time, childless – or male – employees, then they are probably unlikely to have many senior-level women sitting around their board tables. And more fool them for that.

There are increasingly forward-thinking corporate leaders, like Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, that encourage flexible full-time working arrangements to fit in with childcare commitments.  My argument, however, is that there are plenty of working women who choose not to put themselves forward for the responsibility and pressure of demanding full-time jobs in the early years of their children’s lives. Discounting them as “worth less” is short-sighted and likely to result in a company losing a talented, intelligent and valuable employee, and a bright, capable woman becoming disenfranchised and feeling worthless. On a larger scale, this will have a detrimental societal impact for future generations of women, as well as the economy.

Working part-time, though not an easy option by any means, can present a mother and her employer with the best of both worlds, as the end result is often an employee who is motivated, well-organised, and able to deliver results for her employers and clients efficiently and productively. Studies carried out by the LSE in 2002, and the Dutch Institute for the Study of Labor in 2011, have even suggested that part-time employees are more productive than their full-time counterparts.

From April 2015 in the UK, parents will be able to share a year of parental leave after the birth of a child. Whilst this will be an attractive option for some couples that earn similarly, it may not address the career barriers that Mr Farage is suggesting are commonplace in the corporate work environment. I think many parents would agree that demands become more complicated beyond the first year of a child’s life, not to mention if subsequent children are born.

So far under the coalition government, many squeezed middle-income dual-earning families have arguably been penalised, stripped of child benefit and their eligibility for childcare vouchers reduced. The Children and Families Bill progressing through Parliament addresses the rights of both parents to request flexible working, as well as the costs of childcare. But will it go far enough in ensuring that it is both affordable and practical for working mothers to continue choosing to balance their careers with their home commitments?

I have never worked in a City financial institution, but in my ten-year career, in which I have worked in both third and private sector organisations, I have witnessed and personally experienced the impact on one’s career of having children. I have vivid memories of my perspective as a young graduate, still single, childless and working full-time, of some female colleagues working full-time under immense pressure, reluctant to relinquish control and presence in the office, whilst grappling to maintain control of what their children were doing at home. I also worked with part-time female colleagues who were under different pressures to protect their professional credibility and get their jobs done well in less time than the rest of us.

I now see it from the other side. When you commit to taking on the responsibility entrusted in you by your bosses and clients, going home and delegating your commitments to your colleagues is not an option; entrusting others to care for your children exactly as you would, is equally as difficult a control to relinquish. Working mothers have a lot to prove, not just to those to whom they report and work with, but to themselves. This is the balance that every working mother must strike for herself, according to her circumstances.

As an ambitious, career-committed mother of two, soon to be going on my third maternity leave, I empathise with the employer’s predicament. I think a degree of common sense, innovation and flexibility on both the part of the employer and employee, can go a long way to ensuring that adequate value is extracted from an employee who chooses to have children and be their main carer as well as sustaining a career. I believe that this can only be achieved with the belief, trust and investment of employers to ensure that their part-time workers have the infrastructure necessary to work flexibly and remotely, whilst remaining an integrated member of the team. As a working mother’s children grow older and are less dependent and demanding of her time, she may choose to devote more time to her career and be “worth more” to her employer.

Opting to work full-time, and thereby being able to afford full-time childcare, is often not the preference of a working mother who is as passionate and driven to command her role as the main carer of her children as she is to preserve her career prospects.

The impact of part-time working mothers reaches beyond just the mother herself. Like many women I know, without my choice to take the lead in building and sustaining the family environment that both my husband and I want, he could not pursue the high-flying career and income that he is capable of. It is also very important to us that our children know that it’s not just Daddy that goes out to work, and that both our son and daughter grow up with that expectation of women.

I consider the time that I am able to invest in my career during this hectic period of my life as golden. Having a career and earning a salary gives me a sense of worth that I do not get from the relentless and often thankless work of raising my children and running a home. Unlike the Liberal Democrat MP and Women and Equalities Minister, Jo Swinson, who advocates bringing babies into the workplace, I relish the time I am at work to be free of the demands and responsibility of looking after my dependants.

As Nigel Farage inferred, women’s choices stem from their biological make-up. I have seen first-hand many little girls (and many boys, mind you – but that is a whole other blog subject in itself) instinctively role play as parents and home-makers. My “anti-princess” friend may criticise our society for encouraging this, but I think that if girls aspire to be mothers and home-makers, we should nurture that instinct, while inspiring them to have ambitions outside the home too.

Perhaps Nigel Farage should be sat down to watch one of the Disney princesses in action to gain a different perspective on some of the female qualities and aspirations that can add real value to businesses. Or, better than that, he could spend a week shadowing a working mother and see what such employees can achieve at work in the midst of  the challenges and demands they face. The reality is that women will always “biologically” be child-bearers, many of whom will want to spend a significant proportion of their time caring for their young children and striking an even balance between work and home life. To resign them to not having a place in the City is to do a disservice to the industry, our economy and the development of women’s capabilities and leadership potential. City employers and policy-makers should be encouraged by entrepreneurial employers like mine to recognise the value of investing in working mothers today, who will be “worth more” to a company – and society – in the long run.

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