Issue 206 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Working mothers: the double shift

Judith Orr

Working women are to blame for failing children, it's official. Or so last month's publicity surrounding an episode of Panorama 'Missing Mum' and an unfinished and unpublished piece of research would have you believe. The programme drew on a study, by Margaret O'Brien at the University of North London, to claim that children of working mothers had low achievement at GCSE level because of maternal deprivation. No examination was made of any other obvious factors that might affect educational achievement such as poverty, housing, quality of childcare, role of fathers and so on. The results hit the headlines and the whole exercise became a telling demonstration of how myths about women's role in society are maintained.

Panorama's sensationalist press releases implied new and startling evidence for their controversial claims but even a cursory look at the study reveals it to be flimsy, crude and full of holes. Much of the research was based on asking children in the sample to fill in a diary of their daily activities and how much time was spent with their parents. Only 26 percent returned completed diaries and it was from this minority, plus a series of questionNaires from other children, that the results were obtained. Correlation between exam results achieved by the children and the hours their mothers worked showed that 49 percent of children of mothers who worked part time achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A-C, while only 33 percent of those with mothers who worked full time achieved the same results. Of those who gained no GCSE passes 25 percent had mothers who worked full time and 11 percent had mothers who worked only part time. These figures alone formed the basis for the conclusion that children's education is adversely affected if their mother works full time.

But the most obvious flaw in this logic is revealed by the fact that the researchers found that the children of mothers who stayed at home full time achieved 'the poorest educational outcomes' only 31 percent passed five or more GCSEs at grades A-C while 36 percent didn't pass any. Although this completely contradicts the much publicised conclusions of the study, this finding was explained away by claiming that 'full time housewives do not necessarily spend more time with their children' which, if true, rather negates the whole premise of the argument that children do better if their mother stays at home. It was also pointed out that families with only one parent working were economically less well off and so low achievement was to be expected. Again if economic deprivation is acknowledged to be a factor with one group of children how can that not be taken into account in the whole sample? Instead the most glaring contradiction in the results is glossed over and thereafter ignored.

The specific area in which the study was organised is Barking and Dagenham in East London, a predominantly working class area with, in the words of the researchers, 'a long tradition of post-school educational underachievement' 28 percent of the children in the borough pass five or more GCSEs at grades A-C, while the national average is 44.5 percent. Again this rather important fact about the social context of the children's lives, which if looked into might have shed some light on the results, was not explored in the documentary or surrounding publicity.

Finally, although the original research was supposedly a study of the family, the only aspect of the families' situation under examination was whether the mother worked or not. Thus the revealing discovery that children's 'contact with fathers is greatest when both mothers and fathers are working full time' goes unreported.

So now the dust has settled it is clear that there is no new evidence, in fact there is no evidence at all, that having a working mother decreases a child's chance of gaining GCSEs. On the contrary, there is a tide of evidence provided from years of research across Europe and the US which show that, far from being 'deprived', children who have spent time in day care actually benefit from the experience. In the same week as the Panorama episode the Institute of Child Health pointed to studies of educational performance which demonstrated increased competence at reading, writing, maths and general knowledge among children who have been in day care when young. The Institute report also pointed out that 'after the first year of life accidental injury is the leading cause of death in childhood, and an important cause of hospital admission and A and E attendance. Poor children living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods are at substantially greater risk of serious injury. Day care has the potential to provide a safe environment for children who would otherwise be exposed to the environmental hazards of poor housing.'

One long term follow up study showed that a greater proportion of the day care children held jobs at 19, more were studying at college, fewer were on benefits, fewer had experienced a teenage pregnancy or had been arrested for criminal acts. Such results rarely make banner headlines, while the argument that children suffer disadvantage if their mothers work has become the accepted commonsense view, even though it does not stand up to examination.

That the role of women as workers is still being questioned at the end of the 20th century, when women form almost half the workforce and this figure is set to grow to more than half by the beginning of the 21st century, shows that despite the gains of the last 30 years women's equality is still to be achieved.

What are the motives behind such ideological attacks? Are the policy makers, politicians and bosses trying to push women out of jobs and back into the home looking after children full time? The answer is no. Women workers are an essential core part of the system and cannot be dispensed with in this way. Instead the usefulness of research which says that children need their mothers lies in its ability to shape women's attitudes towards work and the family, ensuring they see their role as childbearer as the primary one around which waged work must fit.

There have been brief moments in history when the needs of the system have meant that these priorities have briefly changed and women have been encouraged to concentrate on being workers. During the Second World War posters proclaimed that children were happy in nurseries while their mothers worked in the armaments factories, that mothers should not visit their evacuee offspring too often and that it was selfish to stay at home. All this propaganda had one purpose to stop women feeling guilty about working. After the war, when the government wanted women to give up their full time jobs to be replaced by the returning soldiers, the message changed. Studies of maternal deprivation were much publicised. John Bowlby's studies of children who had been separated from their mother were famous for claiming that such children went on to become juvenile delinquents. In the 1950s the accepted professional view was that the mother had a unique relationship with her young child and had to be a full time carer in order that the child would grow up into a healthy, well balanced adult.

But the reality behind society's ideal was already changing, with 20 percent of married women working during the 1950s. What the propaganda was doing, then as now, was to make sure women never forgot that it was they, and not society or the state, who were responsible for the well being of their children. This meant that, as women were drawn into new industries after the war, part time and flexible work became a feature of working women's lives. This way women could fit their waged work around what was seen as the most important role of being a mother.

The frustration and anguish of fulfilling the role of the ideal wife and full time mother was the basis for the book that is often seen as the first expression of what was to become the modern women's liberation movement Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. She talked about 'the problem which has no name' the emptiness and stultifying world of life within the confines of the home.

But this image of women's lives was left far behind as a revolution took place in the lives of the majority of women as the postwar economic boom and increased control over conception opened up possibilities of life and work outside the four walls of the home. The rise in the number of working women has been dramatic. In 1961 one researcher wrote with astonishment that 'more than one half of all the women in paid employment in the United Kingdom were married... It is now higher than the figure reached during the peak years of employment during the Second World War; the highest, indeed, in Britain's industrial history, and probably the western world' (Married Women Working by Pearl Jephcott).

Today around 71 percent of women of working age work and, although the majority of part time jobs are filled by women, between 1984 and 1994 full time jobs for women rose by 13 percent while the number for men actually fell. At the same time the growth in part time work has been much greater amongst men from just over half a million in 1984 to just under a million now. For women it went from 5.4 million in 1984 to 6.1 million today. In terms of secure long term employment one LSE study found that 'since 1975 there has been a decline in the average job tenure of men, but a slight increase in the average job tenure of women'.

While in the past women re-entering the workforce after having a child were most likely to work part time, now they are just as likely to return to full time jobs. People simply cannot afford to live without a full wage and often the only thing stopping women with children working more is lack of affordable childcare. Britain has an appalling record on the provision of publicly funded childcare, with the government providing for only 2 percent of children under three years old the equivalent figure for Denmark is 48 percent.

Despite this lack of state provision women juggle the most complicated and difficult arrangements in order to get out to work, even when the financial return is limited. Major ongoing research in the US the Framington Heart Study demonstrates that despite these added worries women who work are less likely to suffer from heart disease, depression and chronic illness than 'home makers'. Another found that 'mothers with careers are happier, with more cheerful and competent children sons more resourceful, daughters more apt to have careers of their own and fathers more engaged in family life.'

None of this evidence detracts from the fact that working women carry a double burden of being seen as the primary child carers and as a consequence suffer low pay and less opportunities in the workplace. But what is crucial is that most women see the benefits from waged work as being more than solely financial. Work increases social contact with other adults and a sense of collective experience while the alternative of staying at home permanently with young children is one taken up by only a minority.

But the reality of women's lives is of no concern to those politicians flying the flag of 'family values'. The Labour leadership has evacuated the whole area of women's rights and society's responsibilities for the next generation in its enthusiasm for the Tories' agenda on moral issues. Today there is little distinction between the opinions expressed by that well known working mum, Harriet Harman, and any of the Tories sitting opposite her in the House of Commons.

The class bias and the hypocrisy of both the Tories and Labour on the whole question knows no bounds. For when single mothers, whether by choice or necessity, stay at home to look after their children they are described as 'benefit scroungers'. Labour talks of forcing them into job centres to take whatever badly paid job is on offer. Then they are told that the low wages can be topped up by family credit. Thus the state subsidises firms which underpay their workers, while failing to carry out the one policy which would remove thousands from the benefit bill impose a minimum wage. Women who sign on and do cash in hand work such as cleaning, as part of the 'black economy', are regarded as fiddling their benefits, although again the state is merely subsidising employers who pay wages on which it is impossible to live.

When it comes to professional and middle class mothers, however, it is seen as commendable if they give up demanding jobs to be at home with children. The Guardian women's page delights in stories of women who have dropped out of the 'male centred' rat race in order to provide a stimulating environment for their toddlers, all the better to set them up for the competitive world of private schools and selective education.

As for the ruling class, they have never lived their lives by the rules they dictate for others. The children of the rich, whether the mother works or not, are farmed out to full time nannies and boarding schools for most of the their formative years without headlines about child neglect and maternal deprivation.

The reality is that it is not the welfare of children that is at the heart of 'family values'. Instead what is key is hard cash. The continuing ideological battle about working women serves both to save the state money by forcing women off benefits into low paid work, and to crush any expectations that women might have that publicly funded childcare is an option. Today women's place in the workforce means they are better placed than ever to fight for a society with quite different priorities.


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