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Donkin on Work - Women

May 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 week.

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 great.”

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, – 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 women.

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 for employment.

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:

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved