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Wednesday, 1 August, 2001, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
The TGWU's Diana Holland quizzed on working mums
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Glamorous, capable and independent is the popular media image of working mothers.

But the BBC's current affairs programme, 4x4, has found that the reality is very different.

Working mothers are often stressed from juggling family, work commitments and maintaining a relationship, with little free time left for a themselves.

Is the combination of relationship, work, and motherhood satisfying for women? Is the juggling act of raising children, holding down a job and sustaining a relationship, simply too stressful for the 5.5 million British women who do it?

Diana Holland is the national organiser for women, race and equalities for the TGWU. She joined us for a live forum and answered a selection of your questions.


Transcript of interview:


Newshost:

Caroline Speller, Portsmouth, UK asks: Career progress is also almost impossible unless you work full time and more. Are you finding that we are as a nation working harder and working longer hours and what does this mean for women?


Diana Holland:

There are a few exceptions where I have found senior jobs that are carried out by people working on a part-time contract or job-sharers that get promoted. But it is true they are the exception and these positions are very rare and they tend to be in skill shortage areas. So when there is a requirement to encourage people into a job - and women in particular - they find a way of doing it. So I think people should be a lot more positive because you will find that when you do employ people in that way it can be very positive - it doesn't have to be a negative thing.


Newshost:

But the culture, particularly here in Britain, is very much that the more hours you put in the more money you earn - it has become the culture almost that we have work longer hours and that doesn't necessarily meet with family needs does it?


Diana Holland:

Not at all. I think that there is also an imbalance because women when they become mothers tend to work much shorter hours than other women and men when they become fathers tend to work much longer hours than other men. So there is something wrong there because children are losing out when they aren't with their fathers as well as their mothers.


Newshost:

We still have a situation where the majority of bosses are male. Do you think that has got anything to do with the fact that some women perceive that flexible working hasn't yet arrived?


Diana Holland:

It can make difference who it is that is employing you and who the boss is and I think women who have had the experience of juggling work and family do have an understanding of what it is but I believe we can't rely on that. As a union, what we are looking for is to have a much better right to be able to work more flexibly. We have been very disappointed that the Government has introduced a suggestion that you could have the right to ask to work more flexibly but we think in this day and age it should be a bit stronger than that. So if you have got a way of doing your job that can be done in a way that fits with your life and your family and does what is required at the end of the day - then why not?


Newshost:

Caroline Speller goes on to ask: How long do you think it will take to change the professional mindset that if you are in one of the professions e.g. a lawyer, you have to be there long hours? Is it going to happen overnight?


Diana Holland:

I don't think it happens overnight no. My experience is that where somebody takes the plunge and tries out a different way of working they find that it tends to work. We are doing a project at the moment within local government and where they want to introduce seven-day working where it hasn't been there before - rather than taking the approach of saying - how much do we have to pay you to get you to work the hours you don't want to - rather to say who would like to work at different times. Do the current hours suit you? What would fit better? So by taking that approach, as well as looking at the money side of things you can actually find that some people are weighing up that time is as valuable to them as the money.


Newshost:

Do you find that in terms of flexible employment and looking at schemes that can enable both parents, women and men, to cope with family life and work, that it is the bigger employers and not necessarily the smaller employers that are more forward thinking?


Diana Holland:

You would think it would be like that and certainly in terms of the big schemes that have clear rights and responsibilities in as an agreement - then it is likely to be the bigger employers. But there are also examples of smaller employers where, because there is the personal relationships and an understanding, they can sometimes be more flexible and more able to employ people in a flexible way. So I wouldn't always say that small employers have to be written off in this - I think sometimes they a bit of a bad press on it.


Newshost:

Sarah Shepherd, Oxford, England asks: I have found throughout the course of my career that tremendous bias still exists towards working mothers. What plans do you have to further educate businesses that working mothers are worth employing?


Diana Holland:

I think that for too many women still, having children is your career decision and then perhaps what you were doing as a career goes on hold and you do something else temporarily until the children are a bit older and then before you know it you are doing an entirely different type of work - you may be very happy with the children but that commitment you made at the beginning of your working life is lost to our society and our communities. But I think in the new flexible working it should be about helping people fulfil themselves and also look after their children properly.


Newshost:

What are the unions doing to make businesses take on board the fact that these are not people who are giving up their career - they are wanting to carry on but just have a different pace of life for that period of time?


Diana Holland:

In the worst cases unfortunately we end up taking on legal cases and we have problems. Hopefully it doesn't happen too often but every now and again you still find somebody who when she tells her employer she is pregnant, the assumption is that she leaving.


Newshost:

That is illegal isn't it?


Diana Holland:

Yes that is illegal. The bottom line is that we help people and protect their basic minimum rights but we hope we can do a lot more than that. There are a number of employers that are far more forward thinking than perhaps some of the CBI statements would lead you to believe. A number of employers say that they do not want to be at the back of this agenda and want to be at the forefront.


Newshost:

Hester Brown, New Delhi, India asks: Part of the solution must be for fathers to spend less time at work and more time at home. What signs are there that this is happening, if any?


Diana Holland:

I believe there is certainly more of a demand on the trade union movement from men to say we want you to negotiate things that will help us spend more time at home - certainly when the baby is born - there is a lot of agreements on paternity leave and there will be new legal rights on the that in a couple of years time in the UK. But it is still the case that for too many families, because of the way things are structured, they need the money.


Newshost:

But often men are paid more than women.


Diana Holland:

Exactly and that's what is making the decision rather than a real choice in the families. Too often it is the women who are starting this debate and we need more men saying that they want to have time with our children as well - we want to have these rights too. I think there is some move in that direction but I think men need to have a bit more confidence to come out and say that they would like to spend more time with their children and not feel that it is something that they shouldn't want to do.


Newshost:

Nicky Chapman, Felixstowe, UK asks: Why don't the unions fight more for companies to either provide childcare at a discounted rate or at least contribute towards the cost of private childcare?


Diana Holland:

In some cases we have achieved it but there was more of a success rate in this area a few years ago than there is now. But it was a way of encouraging women into employment when there were skill shortages. Employers were saying what can do and suddenly the money was there for crèches - so we do argue for that. But we are also saying crèches aren't the only answer - sometimes it is financial support for childcare. But all of that doesn't create new places. I think the Government's childcare strategy is really important and a move in the right direction but we need more places. If you are going to have childcare for babies rather than just childcare for three and four year-olds, so you don't have a huge career gap - that is not a simple thing and it needs to be thought through. We believe a lot more support needs to be given in this area.


Newshost:

Muriel in Manchester, UK asks: I am a women with a satisfying job and relationship with no children. Why should women who choose to have children demand so many career and other assistance packages?


Diana Holland:

The point in the question was to say why are these women making so many demands. My experience is that women don't make enough demands. Mostly women who have children struggle on and find ways of coping which are often not the best solutions because if they had more support around them then it would be easier for them. So I don't think women are as demanding as perhaps they should be.

Secondly, I don't think by helping and supporting at difficult and complicated times in their life like childcare doesn't mean that you don't help other people at other complicated and difficult times in their lives - whether it is sickness, disability or perhaps they want time off for study leave. If you get a recognition that everybody is a human being and not a machine then there is something in it for everybody.


Newshost:

Kate Colchester asks: So many of us could work from home. Why isn't this option fully understood and applied by employers?


Diana Holland:

I think there are lots of different ways of working and we should consider those. But I would have a slight health warning; sometimes working from home can seem like the answer to everything but if you have a child at home with you, you also have additional costs of electricity etc. and people sometimes don't take that into consideration. Also when do you stop? People that work from home tend to work much longer hours because they never have a clear beginning middle and end and they can get quite isolated. However, at certain times and maybe for part of the week it can be the solution. So I do think we need to be a lot more adventurous and flexible about how we work.


Newshost:

Rachel Blake in Cardiff asks: Do you think that society is to blame for making women feel guilty for not returning to work?


Diana Holland:

I think generally if you haven't done it there is a lack of understanding of what it means to look after children - it is one of the most rewarding but one of the most demanding things around. People that work and are employed as childcare staff are totally undervalued and underpaid. But I do think that it is something which we could do in the trade union movement but also in society generally - to value the way that children should be treated is the absolute priority.

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