A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Rosie Boycott, founder of Spare Rib Magazine in 1972, speak at the Other Club, a pop up club for women set up by Joy Lo Dico. Rosie was utterly wonderful; she's long been a bit of a hero of mine, and became more so as she talked about the horrors of the society that gave birth to Spare Rib. It's astonishing to think that my mother grew up in a world where women couldn't buy a car without having a male relative's counter-signature, his permission, to buy it. Where the apparently 'alternative' press was run by the Old Etonian former classmates of the editors of The Times and The Telegraph, just the ones who wore paisley shirts rather than tweed and took drugs rather than drinking whiskey. And, most horrifically, where many women couldn't work after they had children because there was no state childcare provision for children under school age. So your options were beg your parents, fork out for an expensive nanny or stay at home.
Oh wait, hang on. Doesn't that last bit sound familiar? It's now 2013; over 40 years since Rosie and her colleagues began their calls for workplace equality and equal opportunity, and still women are lightyears behind their male colleagues in the upper echelons of business, politics, and other employment fields. All of four FTSE-100 cpmpanies have female CEOs. Only 20-odd per cent of UK parliamentarians are women, which puts at a gloriously ambitious global average that takes into account Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. That's right, people, Saudi Arabia, the torchbearer for women's rights that plans to allow female citizens to actually vote after 2016. Wowza, go us!
40 years since Rosie first asked for childcare to be made available, and we still don't have universal or even means-tested early-years provision. And I'd like to make a case that this remains a basic starting point for equality, not an aspiration for the future. All very well for Ed Milliband to promise 8am-6pm care for children of primary school age, it's a brilliant start but it doesn't solve the imbalance of expectation created right from the birth of the child. Now, I want children very much, but I realise that having them will require some degree of sacrifice. Farewell morning gym sessions, weekend lie-ins and manicures. However, I don't see my career as something up for the chop in order to procreate, but this sad fact remains: until the day that women are no longer the default primary carers, it won't be as easy to make the leaps up the career ladder we deserve to. Hirers will continue to look at women in their early 30s, at the peak of their professional abilities, and ask themselves, 'Is she a sound investment? Will her priorities lie at home for the next ten years? Will we have to make her part time, let her go home early to pick up children, have her work from home when Granny is ill?'
Until men are as likely to take on these burdens (and, much as I love and want children, the little b*ggers are whacking great burdens) as their wives and partners, the playing field will never be level. So here are my handy policy solutions - Ed, Nick, Dave, feel free to plagiarise if you'd like to.
Make like Finland, and give mothers three months' parental leave and fathers exactly the same, to be taken consecutively. So if Dad doesn't want to stay home for three months covered in regurgitated milk and smelling very slightly of poo, the family loses those three months. Harsh, but it certainly dispels presumptions. As a starting point we could even be less ambitious - at the very least allow couples the option of splitting the time equally, rather than the feeble two weeks that fathers are currently given.
And let's get some early years childcare going. I know it's expensive, but perhaps we could add just a tiny percentage onto corporate tax to fund it? Ed Balls suggested an increase to bank levy, which seems to me essentially bank-bashing - a fun passtime but I think there's a real case for the policy, and I don't want it to be pushed to one side when the climate changes and bankers are no longer the universal whipping boys. No, corporations should take this on because they're going to benefit so massively, from being able to avoid having to make arrangements for parents to work flexibly to accommodate care arrangements, but mainly from having the widest possible pool of workers to choose from, as more women and men are able to carry on working throughout their best, most productive years. An all-round win!