First Born

Published in Stopgap, the magazine of The Fawcett Society on 1 December 2005

The 30-year-olds of today are the first women to have enjoyed equality legislation all their lives. Are these women aware how women’s working lives have changed? Do they feel discriminated against? Rachel Bell asks five women born in 1975, working in jobs where inequality is camouflaged

I was never under any illusions about the lot of working women. My mother saw to that. She stopped teaching for twelve years to bring up her three daughters. She didn’t get her National Insurance contributions paid for her and lost twelve years of her pension fund because she was an unemployed carer. As a divorced parent in the sixties and seventies, she got rough justice. My dad could keep all his pension to himself when he left the carer of his kids. Now my mother is 64, the long term effects of losing 25% of her state pension still hurts.

Then there was the blatant discrimination within the workplace. She returned to full-time teaching in 1981 and after a few years she and a female colleague applied for a deputy headship. “At that time there was a fashion for deputy headships and headships to go to dynamic young men in their twenties,” my mum explained. “The Education Advisor put his arms around us and said, ‘You’re wasting your time applying, girls. We don’t want 4O year old mums, we want young men.’ Teachers have always had equal pay but they’ve only had about 25 years of equal opportunities of promotion.” Shame. That school missed out on a dynamic teacher with the added experience of raising three kids.

So what’s changed for women of my generation? I’m 33 and my adult life has been spent working in publishing. Company directors and senior managers are male and female in equal measure.  Many editors are women. At 25, I became an editor but I didn’t get paid as much as the 30 year old man before me. When I asked why, I was told I was young and had less experience. Not tough enough or clued up enough to argue, I bought it and did the job without a deputy to prop me up. Sex Discrimination is well disguised in publishing. With so many women working in it, things look pretty female-friendly. When I look deeper, I notice a new male manager gets a new PC and a PA while his female counterpart, a single mother, gets neither and is missing her kids’ bedtime because she’s in a meeting.

I also notice that many women I know will face discrimination at work when they become pregnant, that women have to work in low paid part-time jobs because motherhood, inadequate paternal rights and lack of flexible working hours give them no other option, that many women are carers and getting next to nothing for it (it’s one in four aged between 45 and 64), that despite 25 years of the Sex Discrimination Act, we still get paid less (for every £1 a man earns, a woman earns 82p), that pensions for women are stuck in the dark ages (women’s income on retirement is 57% that of men’s), that our society treats childcare as a women’s issue and most women enter a working world that treats all its employees as male, with no family or personal obligations.

Add this all up and it’s surprising that my female contemporaries at work rarely discuss women’s rights. Anna Moore, 30, a writer at a partwork publishing company agrees. “Most of my friends are not interested in women’s rights and don’t give any thought to these issues. They take it for granted that they have equal pay, maternity leave and the same rights as men. I think there is still a long way to go but it worries me that most women take their civil rights for granted.”

Colette Branham, a graphic designer, admits, “I do take the way things are now for granted. The difference really becomes apparent to me when I hear of a woman doing a traditionally male job. For example, my brother worked with a female mechanic, which would have been unheard of in my mother’s day.” But for others, sex discrimination is clearly visible, tied in with racial discrimination. Celita Parker, an area housing manager in south London who has come up against both says, “I discuss these issues with friends frequently.”

Are today’s 30 year old women aware of what has changed since 1975? Have their mothers drummed it into them as much as mine did? “I know I have been able to reach a management position much quicker than my mother, ” says Celita.  Anna learnt about women’s fight for equality at her all girls’ comprehensive school, but it wasn’t until her early twenties that she realised it wasn’t ancient history. “Now I’m 30, I’m really conscious of the opportunities I’ve had career-wise and the quality of education I had. I think this has a lot do to with my upbringing – coming from a family that is relatively well off. I see that my generation must have been the first to benefit from the Sexual Discrimination Act and the change in attitudes towards working women. I remember my mum telling me that in her final year of university, the careers counsellor told her she had three choices, to be a teacher, a civil servant or a librarian. My mum tried and hated them all. The attitude at that time was that work was just a stopgap until marriage and children.”

Natalie Richardson, an Operations Manager for a theatre company, says, “Yes! My mother was expected to leave school at 14, find any old job and then wait for a man to turn up, marry him, produce kids and stay at home. As the first person in my entire family to go to university, I appreciate how things have improved.”

Once discussion moves on to their own working lives, it soon becomes clear that sex discrimination is alive and well. “I do remember one job interview when they asked me if I was planning to have children, ” says Inca Starzinsky, a textile and fashion designer.  “They said that if, after a few months of working there I wanted to have children, this would be problematic. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got the job if I had said yes, I might want kids in the future.”

Colette says, “I was sexually harassed at a previous job, which caused me great deal of stress and involved being treated with a real lack of respect.  A man also pipped me at the post for a job. We were the last two candidates with equal experience, but it was a male dominated environment and I felt this was a big factor in why I didn’t get the job.” 

As a young, ambitious, black woman, Celita believes she was discriminated against threefold. “Certainly in the past, in other organisations, I feel that I was discriminated against due to my colour, age and sex.  Colleagues and managers did not take me or my opinions seriously.”

While these 30 year olds recognise that they have many more opportunities open to them than their mother’s did, has what they want from work changed, too? Are they still struggling for equal pay or promotion? The concerns centre on childcare.

Natalie worries that having a child and maintaining her position. “I worry about the hours I have to work in theatre to make my mark and have a baby as well.  I am rather hoping my boyfriend will do the stay at home man bit! To plan a child, I have to reach a position where I can work more or less 9-5ish. This only happens when you are a senior manager or producer and I have about four years to go. So I will be an older mother than I’d like to be. I couldn’t even contemplate having a child now at this crucial stage in my career, which is really annoying as I am more than a bit broody!”

“I do think a lot about what to do when I want to have a child, ” says Inca. “Ideally, I would like my partner to get decent paternity leave so that I can continue to work. Society needs to recognise that a man is no less able to raise a child than a woman.”

Not interested in marriage or kids herself, what Anna wants is a better quality of life. “I do wish that I could work more flexible hours so that I could have more free time outside of the routine 9-5. I think employers need to look at how they can literally get the best from their employees, which doesn’t mean giving them a two week holiday once a year.”

Only Celita raises the issue of a glass ceiling: “I have concerns about being able to get to the next level of management due to my sex and colour as well as relatively young age” while Nicola suggests that the workplace is still not an environment where women feel safe enough to stick up for themselves, saying, “Some women put up with sexual discrimination and don’t speak up.”

If the attitudes of these 30-year-olds are anything to go by, today’s women are not likely to be made to feel guilty about having the child they want or fighting for a more balanced working life. But until companies realise how flexible working hours and decent parental rights will save them millions on retraining, these women’s need for job security will restrict their choices. And while Neanderthal levels of sex discrimination still exists in many other sectors, forcing women out of traditionally male environments, I still feel hopeful. Our mother’s generation is moving into retirement and today’s teenage girls believe it is their birthright to do anything in life. That’s something to smile about.

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