So, researchers have finally confirmed that the career gender gap is particularly acute for mothers. This will be no surprise to me, or to my daughters, or I suspect to any mother who has had the experience of attempting to develop her career while parenting young children. The issues are however, rather more complex than many propose.
The childcare issue is extremely complicated. While it is clear that Britain has a childcare 'gap', successive governments have failed to understand that for high quality childcare to be generally available, it is impossible for such a system to be self-sustaining; that is to run on a cost per child that is substantially less than the average wage. If fees amount to more than this and parents have to dedicate the whole of one parent's wages to childcare costs, most will logically decide that unless they are able to find lower-cost care elsewhere, for example, from a grandparent, it is pointless for both of them to engage in paid work, given that one wage will be wholly consumed by childcare.
The government has recently offered 30 'free' hours of care for three and four-year-olds; however the care sector has commented that the per hour fee they will receive will not cover their costs, and consequently they will become unable to maintain an acceptably high quality care and education environment. This particularly relates to the key requirement to employ well-educated and highly skilled practitioners, who unsurprisingly are not prepared to work for minimum wage.
Most working mothers can tell their own tale of compromises made to fit work, career building and childcare. These inevitably impact on career trajectories. But many also form childcare networks with other women, typically their own mothers, sisters and close friends. This is not new, and similar networks have existed since the time of the industrial revolution. What is relatively new is societal pressure to place very young children in poorly funded mass childcare environments for the majority of their waking hours. This is a feature of neo-liberalism, which subordinates human needs to the requirements of international money markets.
Logically, the only way in which children can be economically generative is in a situation where their working parents pay another adult a wage to take care of them. However profit can only be realised if the adults providing care do so at a cost below that of the wage of the average adult in the society in question. This is a conundrum upon which successive British governments have spun since Thatcher and Reagan unleashed neo-liberalism across the western world.
Twenty first century neurobiology has added a new area to the debate, in that we are now beginning to learn about the importance of early relationships between mothers and babies, and the biological need that infants under three have to be cared for within close circles of closely bonded adults.
Perhaps then, we are going about this issue in the wrong way. But where do we go from here?
It is unreasonable for girls to grow up in a society as I did, that presumes their career trajectory will inevitably be limited by motherhood. It is also just as unreasonable for girls to grow up in a society that communicates to them that they can "have it all" as my daughters did, and leave it to them to find out in the early period of motherhood that the reality is far more complicated.
First of all, society must recognise that caring for small children is a highly valuable occupation. We may have moved on from the early 1990s, when in returning to paid work following full time childcare, I found the 'previous employment' box I was expected to check on application forms was 'unemployed' (I used to cross it out and write 'full time parent'); but we still much have further to go, as contemporary full time mother Vanessa Olorenshaw explains.
Then, having recognised non-commercial childcare as a valid occupation, we should align the national economy accordingly through a variety of strategies, including flexible income tax thresholds. Monies that are redirected into families to support the care of infants should not be construed as benefit, but as payment for the production of a national resource: a mentally healthy future generation.
Both Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn are at pains to emphasise that they are not neoliberals; however both seem wedded to the neoliberal holy grail of non-family based childcare despite the fact that there is much evidence to indicate that this puts a great amount of stress upon both mother and infant in the pursuit of commercial gain.
A more human-friendly solution would be a taxation threshold and rebate system to facilitate the shared care of young infants between their mothers, other family members and close friends, and a culture of employment that supports mothers on a gradual trajectory back into the world of paid work as their children grow older, and that does not construct full time parenting as some type of detriment to the economy or to the individual in terms of "unemployment" or "time off".
At the beginning of the neo-liberal era, infant psychology expert John Bowlby reflected "Man and woman power devoted to the production of material goods counts a plus in all our economic indices. Man and woman power devoted to the production of happy, healthy and self-reliant children in their own homes does not count at all. We have created a topsy-turvy world". A political party that had the courage to pledge to rebalance this situation within a twenty first century strategy would hugely enhance their electability.
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