Other Articles Feb 23 2009

Off ramps, on ramps

The Americans have a name for it –‘off ramps and on ramps’ – the process by which well qualified women either give up work completely or cut back their hours once they have children. In the more family friendly world of British working mothers it is known euphemistically at the ‘mummy track’.

We may get up to a year’s leave and more generous maternity pay, whereas most American women have no paid leave, but the principles remain the same. One of more children usually leads to broken work experience, part time hours, a drop in income and less chance of promotion.

One recent UK study confirmed that the majority of new mothers who remain in work don’t just switch to part time hours but ‘trade down’ as a result. Women in senior positions are particularly badly affected because of the shortage of high quality part time management jobs.

The authors of the study (in the Economic Journal), economists, Dr Sara Connolly and Dr Mary Gregory, painted a bleak picture ‘From corporate manager to office worker. From teacher to classroom assistant, from nurse to care assistant. These are the occupational trajectories for some of Britain’s most highly-qualified women when they switch to part-time work and childcare.

Some estimates suggest that our failure to keep well qualified women in the jobs for which they are trained, after they have children, costs the economy between £15 and £23 billion a year in lost tax receipts and wasted investment in education.

More importantly, it is an emotional see saw for the women. Researching a book about working mothers, I discovered that the conflict between earning money, wanting to work for personal fulfilment and being a ‘good mother’ is as powerful as ever.

Some women do manage to hang on to the same full time jobs they did before they got pregnant but the majority make some sort of change.  Beverly, a scientist with a PhD under her belt, gave up her job completely when her first child was born, but suffered post natal depression and started to begrudge her husband’s freedom.

Eventually she found her way back into work but as an academic research administrator ‘I know it’s not what I’m trained to do. It does bother me, of course it does, but also I’m getting something else out of it, my family life and  having time with my children.’

Other mothers talked about how difficult it was to contemplate a return to work after a lengthy career break. The Office of National Statistics estimates that there are 4.7 million ‘economically inactive’ women of working age. A quarter of these would like to be working and around half a million of these want to work but cite family reasons for why they can’t.

Now in her early 40s Louise, a former TV producer who gave up work to raise her two children summed up the feelings of many: ‘I don’t resent my kids at all but I do resent the situation. We were brought up to work and we were told to get out there and do it on our terms, but when I had my children I realised that it wasn’t achievable. I think that I have sacrificed my work life for my family life.’

All parents with children under six can now ask to work flexibly. From next month that will be extended to the parents of teenagers. But the key to keeping more women ‘on ramps’,  on their own terms, is more high quality part time jobs   and some high profile role models – a job share in the Cabinet for example.

Some employers do now offer exemplary flexible work schemes, realising that this helps to retain staff and improve morale. However many others are still not prepared to contemplate managing staff in more innovative ways. That may not change until more men start demanding flexible or part-time work.

Around 40 per cent of women with dependent children work part time, compared to four per cent of men with the same domestic responsibilities. The government is now looking at shared parental leave in the hope that if both parents share early childcare that may prompt more men to contemplate flexible work.

Even then other help and support will be needed for women who stop work completely. Karen Mattison, co founder of the London based social enterprise Women like Us, which seeks to match mothers to quality part time jobs, discovered that her organisation didn’t just need to find the jobs.’ We realised we also needed to support women on the journey back to work and give them coaching, confidence and skills they were lacking.’

Writing a CV a job application or getting up to speed with the latest IT may seem child’s play to someone already in work, but it can be a daunting prospect to a woman more used to the swings than the cut and thrust of office life.

But getting back on the ramp is possible. One mother I met, Sally, gave up journalism to care for her three children, but became a school governor and got actively involved in local politics during her time out. She used this to good effect on her CV and eventually landed a job campaigning for a national charity. ‘Anything is possible now,’ she told me.


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