2006 – Women say no to the workplace
Thousands more mothers in low-income
families would need to go out to work in order
to ease the problem of child poverty, said John
Hutton, the work and pensions secretary, last
Increasing the numbers of working
mothers is seen by ministers as one of the more
effective ways of reducing the number of children
in families with less than 60 per cent of median
earnings after housing costs – the official
Government definition of poverty in the UK.
At the same time some organisations
are beginning to highlight the need to attract
more women back in to the workplace as a solution
to growing skills shortages arising from demographic
trends. But why should women “go out”
to work? Why can’t work come to women?
The Women & Work Commission
estimated in February that increasing the participation
of women in the labour market could be worth between
£15bn and £23bn to the UK economy.
Could women fill the demographic hole that is
opening in the jobs market?
A report published last week
by City & Guilds* pointed out that for the
UK economy to grow as it is has in the past 10
years it will need to fill some 1.5m jobs between
2010 and 2020 in the face of dwindling numbers
of young people entering the jobs market.
From 2010 the number of young
people reaching working age is expected to fall
by 60,000 each year. The National UK Skills Task
Force says that over the subsequent decade this
will result in 600,000 fewer young people aged
between 15-24 in the jobs market, creating a net
shortfall of 2.1m jobs that will need to be filled.
Companies are already recruiting
among older workers according to preliminary findings
from research carried out by the Chartered Institute
of Personnel and Development ahead of its Recruitment
and Retention conference in London next month.
The study found that a majority
of employers were actively seeking to recruit
people aged between 55 and pension age, while
a significant number of those surveyed were also
seeking to recruit people already entitled to
the state pension.
As Chris Humphries, director
general of City & Guilds points out, “Employers
will need to understand the implications of managing
a workforce in which the traditional age profile
will be inverted.”
It is not only the age profile
that will be inverted. Many existing management
attitudes will need to change, particularly any
persistent belief that people need to work under
close supervision in an office. If employers are
going to reach out to the 60 per cent of women
who do not return to work after leaving to have
children, they will have to build high degrees
of flexibility into jobs.
One woman I spoke with last
week, a business owner who does not have children,
told me that all of her friends had given up work
to have families. “It was not just the maternal
thing,” she said. “Many of them were
simply sick of working every bit of their time
for a company. Time demands have just grown too
Claire Dossett, who gave up
her information technology career six years ago
to start a family, began looking for work again
two years ago when her son began attending play
school. “I wanted to work flexibly but I
couldn’t find anything that would enable
me to earn a decent salary. Most of the options
were cooking, cleaning or working as a cashier
in a supermarket,” she says.
A former colleague contacted
her, with an offer of a full time post in London.
Although she was unable to commit to the hours,
Ms Dossett found someone else to fill the job.
“They paid me the recruitment fee so I began
to fill other jobs as a recruiter working from
home,” she says.
Now she has partnered her business,
iworklife.com – aimed at training and supporting
people with no previous recruitment experience
to set themselves up as local recruiters –
as a franchise with Antal International, a recruitment
business that set up its own franchising operation
four years ago.
Ms Dossett’s company is
just the kind of emergent entrepreneurial venture
that can fill the void for mothers who want to
put their skills to work again, but on their terms.
The City & Guilds research
found that human resources managers were generally
open-minded and amenable to people returning to
work after a protracted absence. A question mark
remains, however, over the weight given to parenting
skills developed by mothers who rear a family.
“There are large benefits
for the workforce in recruiting the skills developed
by mothers who quickly learn how to juggle their
various commitments. They know all about time
management, negotiating and organising a busy
schedule. These are all important management skills
that should be recognised by employers,”
says Judith Norrington, head of national policy
development at City & Guilds.
One problem for many returning
mothers highlighted in the research is a lack
of confidence, particularly among those who have
been out of the formal jobs market for some time.
Men who were considering returning to full time
employment were noticeably more confident than
The Government may need to address
this issue if it is to succeed in its aim of encouraging
more women among low earning families in to the
workplace. A much more important policy consideration,
however, is the nature of work available for women.
Poverty always tends to get
measured in relative incomes. What about the relative
well being of children who have continual access
to their parents? Shouldn’t the Government
recognise a “poverty of absence” for
those denied the regular attention of their parents
who may be forced to work long hours in order
to provide for their families? If good paid work
could be channeled to parents at home it would
enable them to supplement their earnings while
maintaining their family commitments.
One solution could be to encourage
the growth of flexible and home working opportunities
for those who have stepped out of full time employment..
The City & Guilds report called for better
provision of basic skills training and learning
directed at increasing people’s potential
This should be seen as something
beyond simply preparing people to re-engage in
full time careers. Governments and employers need
to develop policies that focus on work rather
than jobs. The issue is not filling the workplace
if the workplace can be any place The full-time
job has been a useful package for more than 200
years but it is no longer feasible for many who
must balance heavy domestic responsibilities with
those of a career.
Women have campaigned for years
to establish equal pay and status in the workplace.
Now they must develop a new status outside conventional
work. It’s no good waiting for slow-thinking
employers and government. The pioneers will work
it out for themselves.
*Dormant Skills Untapped
– solving the impending skills crisis, is
published by City & Guilds policy group. The
report is available at its web site: www.city-and-guilds.co.uk