Mums stuck in the parent trap

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IT'S three decades since men and women were supposed to become equal, at least in the eyes of the law. Yet a generation on, while the gap might have narrowed, the rather depressing truth is women still earn less than men and women still face discrimination in the workplace.

When women who work full-time are paid an average of just 86.4 per cent of what men earn an hour, it will take years for us to catch up.

Last year, women across the country were celebrating after new legislation enhanced their entitlements to maternity leave. Soon all women will be entitled to a year off work, with maternity pay throughout, instead of the current nine months.

It should be great news for pregnant women who may be worried about being rushed into returning to work too quickly after their babies are born, but now the question is being asked, have women pushed their luck too far? Are such hard-fought rights now beginning to backfire?

This week Nicola Brewer, the chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, suggested that such extra benefits may have had the "unintended consequence" of making women less attractive to employers.

It's become almost taboo to see the employers' viewpoint in this debate, but can we really blame them?

Anyone who runs their own business will understand the difficulty of having a member of staff away for nine months, let alone a year – and that's assuming they come back to work at all.

There's also the wider impact on staff morale to consider. If employers can't replace someone who is off on maternity leave, then the workload gets shared between colleagues, who are often struggling to cope with their own job, let alone carrying the burden of someone else's. Those who have chosen not to have kids can feel they are the ones left holding the proverbial baby while their colleagues skip off to procreate.

I'm not trying to undermine the feminist cause here, or downplay the real challenges that women face when juggling their jobs with family life, but ignoring the reality of the situation doesn't help.

Women of childbearing age have always been less attractive to employers because of the perception that they will get up the stick, go off on maternity leave, and possibly not come back.

The answer is not to send women scuttling back to the kitchen, sacrificing any aspirations of a career; it lies in tackling another injustice that is so often overlooked in the equality debate – the treatment of fathers.

Consider the facts. Men in the UK have the worst paternity rights in Europe, and are entitled to a fortnight off after the birth of their child, compared to the 52 weeks to which women will soon be entitled.

As Ms Brewer has argued this week, our legislation merely enforces the stereotype that only women can care for kids and that men should be the breadwinners.

Setting aside the rather bizarre exception of transsexual Thomas Beatie, it is a biological fact that only women can conceive, carry and give birth to babies. Yet men can do a hell of a lot more than just impregnate the mothers of their children. They can also look after them – they can feed them, change their nappies, wipe their tears, wash their clothes, read them stories and play with them.

Children need both parents, not just their mothers, and a lot of fathers would like the opportunity to spend more time with their kids. It's time that employers were encouraged to recognise that all parents, not just women, need to have greater flexibility.

Equality doesn't mean offering women special treatment, it means creating a system that is flexible enough to adapt to the needs of all parents who want to care for their children.

Watch out, Tiger

I naively assumed that watching football and playing snooker were more than enough to satisfy the other half's obsession with sport. But no, now he's gone all goofy about golf.

I can't see what all the fuss is about since, from my armchair perspective, it looks like the most boring sport in the universe. Yet he has embraced his new hobby with an admirable enthusiasm.

Clubs that had been gathering dust (and possibly even rust) for the past decade have been whipped out of storage, special shoes have been purchased and trendy jeans ditched in favour of chinos and slacks. Even a blister the size of a small banana (sustained after a marathon practice session at the driving range) hasn't deterred him.

I caught him practising his waggle – whatever that is – in the living room the other day.

All this adds up to one thing – he has now officially entered Early Middle Age, and that means knitting, a burning desire to visit garden centres and a thirst for collecting novelty teapots are now on the cards for me.

It's a Rolo over

I returned to work in my home office the other day to discover that the other half had left a Rolo perched on the "J" of my keyboard.

As I stuffed the sweetie in my gob, I thought, what a romantic gesture.

Then it occurred to me – what had the greedy so-and-so done with the rest of the packet? Scoffed them, that's what.

Next time I'm hoping he'll say it with a first and last Rolo – and all the others in between.

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