Happy Women's Day: Can Women Have It All Or Are They Being Had?

The Working Mum: the eternal quest for the perfect life or just an ad man's illusion?
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Can women really have it all?

One of the great questions of Metropolitan life that one; apparently it often gets asked round tables of women about a bottle and a half of pinot grigio into an evening away from hubby/boyfriend/kids.

Let’s start with first principles here. Which ‘women’ are we talking about, what is ‘all’ and what the hell does ‘really having it’ mean anywho?

The truth is, the key demographic in that ostensibly all-embracing proposition turns out to be a rather narrower on closer scrutiny.

The ‘women’ who can purportedly ‘have it all’ are from a relatively small population group living in Western Europe, North America and various scattered enclaves around the rest of the world; they are solvent, literate, independent and always upwardly aspirational. If they sound like a target audience, it’s because they are.

The seemingly inexorable rise in women’s purchasing power has meant that advertising has pandered shamelessly to women and targeted them ruthlessly. Having it all? Insert product name here. It’s a just a caption competition for the Soho creatives innit?

Indeed, the advertising industry portrays a world where women are in charge, making their own empowering decisions (in the form of consumer choices, natch) and of course having it all.

The truth is always more prosaic and dependent on perspective. Take my wife; she’s got the career, the child, the house, the car and of course a real catch like yours truly. But if I told her she was farting through silk and that she really did have it all, she’d laugh in my face.

After all, what’s she really got? For 'career' read; demanding and often thankless job where she works all hours, a hormone-surly teenage son, a mortgaged terrace in a falling property market, a beat-up runabout and then, for good measure, she’s shackled to an Irish man of uncertain prospects. But that’s not even the worst of her problems.

Here in the West, we apparently pride ourselves on the egalitarian principles that form the foundations of our enlightened societies. And yet, even now in the 21st century, European gender pay gaps remain stubbornly high even at the highest corporate levels.

Figures released by international HR consultancy Mercer, ahead of International Women’s Day on 08 March, suggest that while women in Ireland and the UK might be struggling with a wage deficit of up to 10% at the executive level, they are not underperforming relative to some of our European neighbours. With a salary disparity of 22% for female executives, it’s the Germans who’ve got the biggest gender pay gap in Europe. Who’d have thunk it? More to the point, how are they still getting away with it?

An ad-man’s construct, if you will: the loving wife who dons the power suit, loves her kids just the right amount and in just the right way before sweeping off to take charge in the boardroom

According to Sophie Black, a Mercer Principal specialising in executive remuneration; “Simple discrimination on pay is often the reason behind salary differences,” she concedes however that there are “other factors at play here”. Because it is women, more than men, who tend to move in and out of the workforce, often due to childcare responsibilities, a woman is more likely to take part-time work to balance competing family and financial demands. She is consequently more likely to be the victim of the kind of corporate stereotyping that devalues the contribution of part-time staff.

“Part-time workers tend to earn less than their permanent colleagues and are often perceived as less loyal and committed. This can lead to lost promotional opportunities and pay-rises,” explained Black.

Lower executive pay for women can also be the symptom of sectional over-representation. While Mercer research suggests that women only make up around 29% of the executive and management workforce across Europe, they tend to dominate in sectors like HR which don’t receive the same remuneration or hierarchical status as male-dominated pursuits like sales.

But if Mercer’s figures on executive salaries in Ireland, with a 10% gender pay gap and the UK slightly narrower at 9%, are not particularly encouraging, then the stats for the wider workforce are decidedly grimmer.

The Fawcett Society campaigns for equality between men and women and they maintain that men currently get paid almost 15% more than females and that figure spirals out to 55% in the banking sector. The equality campaigner also suggests that this gap is only likely to widen, as ongoing public sector job cuts continue to hit women hardest.

The magnitude of the problem is such that it has even reached the attention of the editorial staff at Cosmopolitan Magazine. (We’re just waiting for The Lady magazine to row in behind the campaign before we get off the fence on this one.)

Now, while the majority of Cosmo readers, by their own admission would not describe themselves as being a feminists, the magazine’s ‘F Word’ Campaign is nevertheless calling all British women to fight for their right to an equal pay packet by signing the Cosmopolitan Equal Pay petition.

While The Rusty Wire Service of course wishes Cosmo every success in gathering  the 100,000 signatures which it plans to give to David Cameron later in the year, we rather fear they may be confusing our Prime Minister with someone who actually gives a crap.

Having it all...

Perennially exasperated old curmudgeon that I am;  just thinking about all the multi-tasking  that 'having it all' requires tires me right out. Besides, it’s always seemed to me something of an empty slogan; one which seemed to offer only consumption and commoditisation as meaningful routes to personal fulfilment.

An ad-man’s construct, if you will: the loving wife who dons the power suit, loves her kids just the right amount and in just the right way before sweeping off to take charge in the boardroom where her male minions are both frightened and flirtatious, then it’s off home to her Abercrombie & Fitch model husband who does something meaningful yet manly for a living, not quite doctor-in-a-warzone, maybe just a lantern-jawed engineer who sinks wells in drought-struck villages.

Maybe you really can have all that and still have great hair, what do I know? After all, I’m just a ropey old lump of unreconstructed 20th century male meat. So if you’ll excuse me, I  sense that somewhere, a toilet seat needs lifting.

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