I have a friend. She is fabulous. She will remain anonymous purely because hers are not my decisions to make, but her story is something I can’t help but share with people; the kind of story I’ll crowbar into a conversation with anyone who will listen because it is a sobering reminder of the strangled position of women in work in the UK.
My friend – Emily, we’ll call her Emily – works in the financial sector. This means she is acutely aware of economic trends in developed and emerging markets, is resolute in explaining the devastating impact of the recent banking crisis on people like you and me, and has a capacity for analysis which makes my knees knock with awe. Bearing in mind I thought Fannie Mae was a character in Little House on the Prairie, it’s a wonder she gives me the time of day.
Anyway, Emily is fabulous and she is bloody good at her job. She has spent the past five years making considerable profitable investments for her company and demonstrating the fact that despite not going to Oxbridge – which meant she was not allowed on her company’s Fast Track Stream – she was capable of outperforming every single one of her peers, year in year out, both in terms of the profit she turned and the exams she took. Emily was one of the highest performing members of staff in her company, and the reward? Her peers were promoted more quickly, continuing to do the same job but at a poorer level and being paid £10k a year more, not to mention the unmentionable bonuses. It perhaps goes without saying that all of Emily’s peers were male. As are the two people who own the company.
It was Emily’s inclination that it wasn’t sexism; no, it was just fucking arrogant. So she drew up a spreadsheet showing the string of numbers she had made the company and demanded to know why she was being paid less than people who were doing a worse job. The answer was laughable: We pay you less… because we pay you less. No joke. It was, Emily said, as if a woman hadn’t ever asked them a direct question; the reaction you might experience if your cat started quoting Nietzsche at you. They couldn’t begin to conceive of where she was coming from.
That was a year ago. Last month, Emily called me. She had been looking for a new job and had been offered three – unsurprisingly because she is, as I said, fabulous and bloody good at her job. And then it hit her – the next job she takes is the one that will fall bang in the middle of the next big decision she will want to make; when, and where, to raise a family. Having a baby makes it exponentially more likely that Emily will be passed over for future promotions.
I think this was a watershed moment for me. Until that point, I had an abstract and very theoretical sense of where work intersected with motherhood, always fighting passionately for advances in parental leave which grant both parents equal time – and remuneration – to care for their newborn child but no direct experience of what this meant. I think there is a compulsion, before you turn 30, to place the significant life events of those even just a few years older than you into a different dimension entirely. And then, suddenly, someone you shared shots with at University is about to make a decision which was hitherto always glibly dismissed. I just hadn’t lived long enough for robust discussions about maternity leave to creep into my own life, and to see the seismic effect it would have on my friends.
So Emily was caught in a dilemma – does she take the job which will be blindingly brilliant for her career, but spend the next 5 years – minimum – working her ass off and with no feasible chance for time off to have a baby or two without losing authority and credibility; or does she take the one which is nice, but not blindingly brilliant, which gives her an opening to start her family with the scope to go back to the role she occupied before without fear of reprisal. And wondering – always wondering – whether those pricks in her old company, the ones performing badly on more money, will take the blindingly brilliant jobs instead because they do not have wombs to accommodate.
By all accounts, Emily is incredibly lucky and has nothing to complain about. Faced with 2.5 million unemployed, in the UK there are too many people and too few jobs; having a choice of what work you do is a luxury, having the savings to start a family and the joy of deciding when that will happen is an exception , and having a partner who will fully support whatever decision you make is sadly all too rare. Emily has all these things, and more; but this does not make it ok. Emily shares the same hopes and fears as any woman in work about to have a baby, no matter what they earn or what their ambitions are. But we’re too scared to champion people like Emily; we think she doesn’t need it, the lucky cow. My watershed came when I started to question if that was correct.
It is my belief that had the banks and Governments been filled with more people like Emily, we wouldn’t have experienced the meltdown we did in the US and the UK. Iceland took the hit nice and early and established a new female premier (a lesbian former flight attendant, no less) to handle the clean up of their particular little episode. This isn’t because women are better than men, but because diversity is better than a monopoly – we need women in finance and politics not to speak for other women, but to be a part of a cohort which speaks for us all. So we have as much a duty to champion women like Emily as we do those who do not have a voice and a choice, and for whom decisions are made which continue to quash equality. Creating a world of work which favours men and women on the same terms for the same merits is the most significant thing we can achieve for gender equality. And research shows that when senior leadership teams are more gender neutral, they perform better and pump more money into the economy. That’s not just good for people like Emily; that’s undeniably good for us all. And you can read Helena Morrissey’s recent interview in the Washington Post for a far more articulate summary of this too.
Emily has made her decision. I won’t tell you which job she went for; that’s her story to tell, not mine. But suffice to say, she will continue to be fabulous, as a friend, a colleague, a professional and – one day – a mother. And I will continue to fight for people like Emily, because she does need it; we all need it. And so that when I have children, they don’t experience the same sobering reality when they enter the workplace.