There’s been much in the news recently on the pressures on young girls. A recent study by University College London and the Anna Freud Centre showed, for instance, that emotional problems among girls aged 11-13 have risen by 55% in the last five years.
Another report showed demands for counselling due to exam stress had gone up by 200% in recent years.
The pressure on young women to succeed is immense and they are doing so – another report by LV= finds a quarter of women are now the main breadwinners in their family. Yet young women are aware that, despite progress, there is still a great deal of inequality out there in the workplace, including discrimination and unequal pay. This just increases the pressure to do better – and they are doing so, with more women graduating from university than men, often with higher degrees even though another report from the University of Warwick finds that they are earning less than men even if they have the same qualifications.
However, many of the problems they are likely to face in their later career are already only too clear to them. Another recent report, by graduate careers consultancy the Bright Network, found over 40 per cent of female students from top universities in the UK are already worried about how they will balance work and a family in the future.
It will be interesting to find out whether all this concern is impacting on their career choices. At the same time, young men are showing a growing interest in flexible working and in having a greater involvement in their family life.
We’re in a period of flux where gender roles are changing rapidly, even if expectations – from family, peers, etc – may take a while to catch up. So what is the solution? Clearly, the demand for greater equality is not going to go away as more women remain in the workforce for longer periods – the number of working mums who work, and often work full time, has shot up in the last decade. And the move for greater parity in the workplace has a knock-on effect in the home so men can’t opt out, even if they wanted to.
Employers will have to adapt and that means a whole different way of working which integrates family life into working life.
A recent book, Man-Made: why so few women are in positions of power , by gender expert Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds, former TUC President and General Secretary of the GMB, looks at the issue from the perspective of why so few women are in positions of power. They quote one woman who says: “The objective should not be to hand out a limited number of life belts so that a few more women can float to the top; we need to build a raft with enough space for all women-kind.”
The authors say there is evidence of campaigns for change now, but that it is unclear whether these can coalesce into a more powerful movement which addresses all the many and often linked ways in which women are ‘kept in their place’.
The book contains a chapter entitled The Maternal Wall which talks about how having a baby is when many women often come up against career crises. It concludes: “In short, the pressures on women in the modern world are too great. That is the ultimate condemnation of our system.”
The authors reckon that with a fairer system, the number of women making it to the top of their professions would double or treble.
The book has 10 recommendations. These include the introduction of quotas, targets and in-house equality programmes, better enforcement of equality legislation, greater transparency in appointments and pay and a requirement for employers to have an equal rights policy and a senior manager responsible for equality issues.
But Man Made is more ambitious than this. In short, it argues for a sea change in the way we view work. The authors talk, for instance, about maternity and other policies which aim to support women in the workplace, but say these do not address the central question of a workplace that is not designed for families, and most particularly for mothers. They say: “Society needs to be restructured so that work takes its proper place alongside other imperatives and is fashioned to balance the needs of both genders.”
One of the interviewees, Jane Fuller, owner and Director of Fuller Analysis Consultancy, says simply: “It helped me not to have children in my career. I could be more flexible and work longer hours if necessary, but you shouldn’t have jobs that mothers can’t do.”