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‘A System Which Still Enslaves’, by Sheila Lawlor

A System Which Still Enslaves

Sheila Lawlor

Friday 8th March 2012: As International Women’s Day highlights the failings of policy, Politeia Director Sheila Lawlor asks if it is time to change course.

This week, to chime with ‘International Woman’s Day’, the political classes insisted that great strides had been made to help the cause of women. The House of Commons had benefited, we heard, from the influx of female MPs. Women and ‘the cuts’ exercised some, or women and the ‘glass ceiling’ others; at the same time the favourite rallying cry of women and ‘child care’ returned. But the common thread remained… ‘much more to do’.

If women or indeed men are foolish enough to believe that ‘something should be done’ by HMG – more hand-outs, more benefits, more state support – then instead of obstacles being removed, women will be further manacled. The problem already is a system which treats them not as human beings, but as a race apart, with disastrous consequences for the gender.

Governments of all colours have meddled in providing what they see as a helping hand. But whether you look at the policies for education, for maternity or for benefits, the consequences may be to have created greater comparative dependency than for men. Womens’ lives have thus been blighted by the misguided interventions of HMG (and the EU).

In education, the aim of encouraging more girls to stay on at school, take A levels and go to university has led to higher proportions of women taking less rigorous courses than their male counterparts. So at school, girls may be staying on and getting A levels, but the figures are chilling: of the higher numbers of girls who do stay on, the percentage of those taking tough subjects is smaller than that of their male cohorts. No prizes for guessing that the erstwhile academic stronghold of women, modern languages, has been on the decline, but media studies is on the up.

When it comes to work, the clumsy attempts to engineer the lifestyle of women with babies to get them back to work after birth is proving to have dire consequences. It was Gordon Brown’s great boast that he had saturated the female labour market, in a policy which all parties emulated. But has this improved the lot of women, or simply increased the income and NIC take for the Treasury? Short maternity breaks and back to work may suit some women, e.g. those in the professions who can afford good substitute child care. But for the majority of working women, that break will cost career progression, as they struggle to return to the pre-birth level at work (the evidence suggests that that can take up to 15 years) and keep the family going. Often they lose out on pensions and many move to lower skilled part-time work.

As for the wider benefits system of child tax credits and working family tax credits, the fact that these in-work benefits go disproportionately to women shows just how much the system has failed: state benefits make women every bit as dependent on the state as some feminists claim they were on the old-fashioned patriarchy.

For some parents on their own, special help may be important for social aims. But in general women do not ‘need’ the state to do more in the way of providing child care or legislation or handouts, which only make for higher taxes and bigger government – and deficits for which we all pay, and impoverish the poorest and those struggling to make ends meet. Instead a long-term view should be taken. We need the system (especially the tax system) to recognize that some women would prefer to remain at home with their children until they reach school age. That could be supported through a transferable tax allowance between spouses or through the individual’s own lifetime’s earning. As people have ever longer working lives, average salary over a lifetime could be distributed to bring income when earnings cease, to be paid for from earnings during working life. Instead of the main choice, as now, being the conflicting demands of work and family life, the option of longer career breaks with retraining and refreshing could be offered. Already, women in some jobs, for instance GPs, can return to work when their children go to school with generous support and retraining. This opportunity should be more widely available.

Better lives start with good education, in contrast with today’s failing school system, one compounded by the legacy of ‘women friendly’ education policies. They continue with the opportunities which education brings; and they progress through the different paths different people take: fulfilment through professional life and work with or without family responsibilities, which enrich personal life. But that personal life is a place into which the state should not dare to go.

Until men and women – and the political classes who claim to represent us – realize that women are not a race apart and should not be so treated, they will never break the glass ceiling, let alone find and keep the jobs which fulfil and reward over a lifetime.

*Dr Sheila Lawlor, Director of Politeia, and author of Forever Enslaved? Female dependency and the state.