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Back to the Kitchen Sink
Monday 24 January 2000
Reporter Sarah Powell
Producer Lucy Hillman

A new survey conducted for Panorama reveals that a third of working mums are quitting their full time jobs for part time work or giving up altogether.

And new research, also revealed in the programme, suggests that young children whose parents work full time, may perform less well at school.

Panorama commissioned researchers at the University of Bristol to analyse the working patterns of 560 mothers involved in a big on-going study of family life. All of them went back to work full time after the birth of their first child.
Women, are struggling to balance career and family

The survey showed that within just two years:

  • More than a third had given up their full time jobs.
  • 17% had switched to part time work
  • 19% had given up work altogether.

    Panorama also commissioned a smaller scale study of 73 mothers taken from the British Household Panel survey, by economist Susan Harkness of the University of Sussex.

    Her research reflected the trends in the larger survey and she examined the reasons why such a high proportion of mothers are leaving full time work.

    Susan Harkness. University of Sussex
    "We were very surprised. I think we tended to assume that those women who'd come back to work after child birth stay in the labour market. So the scale of the drop out was really quite surprising." We found that women who returned to full time work returned to full time employment when their children were very young. We also found that they tended to work very long hours."

    There was no reduction in hours prior to and after the birth of a child. So there was no accommodation within their jobs to account for the fact that they now had responsibilities for a very young child

    Susan Harkness, University of Sussex
    It is only by returning to work full time following the birth of a child that women are able stay on track with their career and their earnings but lack of flexibility in the workplace is putting an unbearable strain on women who are trying to juggle family and work. Panorama speaks to working mums caught between a rock and a hard place trying to balance home and work.
    Penny Gillison-Tyler
    For new mother Penny Gillison-Tyler work is not only fulfilling, it's an economic necessity. She and her partner Stewart are boxed in by negative equity on their home. Penny is trying to negotiate flexible working hours with her boss in order to cope with looking after her child "I love my job and the stimulation I receive from that. It might be very tiring and it might be very complicated but it's something I enjoy and I don't really see why I should be relegated to the kitchen sink," she says.

    Cathy Schofield
    Cathy has had a very successful career in publishing and she has managed to combine it with having a child, Angus, now aged 4. Her partner Nick also has a flourishing publishing career. Their lifestyle was featured in a glossy magazine last year about how couples could both successfully pursue careers. Cathy and Nick are both in their late 30s. They decided to hold off having children in order to concentrate on work. When Cathy had Angus she decided she didn't want to give up the career she had put so much effort into building, but she tells Panorama that the stress of combining career and motherhood has made her ill. She blames the inflexibility of her employer. Cathy has now decided to quit her job.

    Scroll down to the bottom of the page for related web sites

    Panorama also reveals the latest findings of the largest detailed British study into child development. Its researchers finds there is some "risk that later child development may be impaired when mothers go out to work early in their lives especially during their infancy." The research has been carried out by Professor . She has analysed several aspects of the lives of 9,000 young adults who were born in 1970.

    School Performance Affected

    Once factors like poverty and the mothers' own education were accounted for the researchers found that there was a relationship between mother's employment in the pre-school years and their children's academic success. The differences were small but meant that girls were 10% "less likely to advance one rung of the qualifications ladder, such as the step between GCSE and A-level" and boys were 12% less likely to do so. There would be offsetting benefits from mothers' contribution to family income.

    This result follows the findings of the first part of the study, released three months ago, which reported that children whose mothers' worked before they were one year old had slightly worse reading scores later on.

    Professor Joshi tells Panorama "there may be something in the child's early development that equips them better to face these undoubted challenges of doing public exams. GCSEs, A-levels and degrees require a lot of skills, personality, motivation. It's a big challenge."

    Maybe having had a mother at home when they were under five equips them better,"

    Heather Joshi, Institute of Education

    The Influence of Quality Childcare

    Researchers believe the effect on children may not be the result of having a working mother. It may be the quality of child care children receive while their parents are gone that makes all the difference.

    "I do feel that parents need more choice and flexibility about how much time they can spend with their children, parents of both sexes - fathers as well as mothers," Joshi adds.

    The Impact of Part Time Working

    Another study from the University of Essex, to be published in the spring, confirms the finding that, on average, the children of mothers who work in the pre-school years are less likely to achieve A-levels. Information in this study allowed researchers to distinguish between full and part time working.

    It finds that parents who work full time have most impact. The effect isn't nearly so strong for children whose mothers only work part time. It is a key plank of government policy that mothers should be encouraged back into the workplace. But critics say more needs to be done. They want the government to impose the legal right for new mothers to demand their old job back on a part time basis but this is opposed by employers.

    Ruth Lea of the Institute of Directors comments:

    "We did a survey 18 months ago of our members and 45% of them said then that they would think twice about taking on women of prime childbearing age because of the maternity legislation. If you bring in legislation to make it compulsory for people to take people back into part-time work, then I suggest that number would go even higher.

    The Government says it is concerned about the strain work places on family life but so far its new policies have failed to offer many practical solutions. Labour have not introduced a legal right for women to go back to work part time work and they have bowed to pressure from business and made concessions on parental leave legislation.

    "I didn't think I would find myself not exactly being hounded out of work but having my working day made so guilt-ridden that I just couldn't bear to carry on,"

    Cathy Schofield, Working mother
    Critics say a combination of deep rooted cultural prejudice and employer inflexibility is making it impossible for women to cope. It is a bleak outlook for mothers who need or want to work full time.


    Related links:
    Institute of Child Health. University of Bristol ALSPAC Study

    Equal Opportunities Commission

    Department of Trade and Industry. Part Time Work Public Consultation.

    Maternity Rights: Department of Trade and Industry Guides and Factsheets

    Centre For Analysis Of Social Exclusion.

    The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

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