Joining the (polka) dots

I have matching puncture wounds on my inner elbows, a pinprick on my thumb and a few more lines on my forehead. That’s right; today I gave blood with a toddler in tow. Actually, it went very well. Certainly much better than last time, when I was left racing away to make school pick up as though Dracula himself were after me. Most of the credit goes to the Blood Service, who had streamlined operations considerably, but part must also go to Twitter, which helped me by raising my blood pressure to such a degree that my donation was collected in record time.

I’d come across an article in from the Jersey Evening Post in which Anne McIntosh, MP for Thirsk and Malton (placing her, funnily enough, just a few miles and a hundred years away from me) made these comments in a parliamentary debate:

“It’s a controversial thing to say, but perhaps I as a woman can say this — 70  per cent of medical students currently are women and they are very well educated and very well qualified,” she said.

“When they go into practice and then in the normal course of events will marry and have children, they often want to go part-time and it is obviously a tremendous burden training what effectively might be two GPs working part-time where they are ladies. And I think that is something that is going to put a huge burden on the health service.”

I hate to break it to Miss McIntosh, but perhaps I, as a woman, can. The “huge burden” facing the NHS may have rather more to do with the drop in real-term spend than those pesky “lady” doctors, training for years at enormous expense, then having babies for the hell of it and demanding that their skills be kept up to date even when swanning off for part of the week to look after them spend taxpayer’s cash on lattes. I have to admit that I don’t actually understand the argument either (perhaps its a woman thing again). Is it just the additional training needs of two part time doctors which is the burden? I’d be curious to know quite how much that accounts for in the budget of the NHS as a whole. How, for example, does is compare to the discredited claims that immigrants are overwhelming it?

The Health Minister, Anna Soubry, has been forced to issue a clarification (she “fully supports” women doctors apparently, so that’s ok) after initially appearing to concur with the comments in the debate:

”Could I just say very quickly you make a very important point when you talk about, rightly, the good number of women who are training to be doctors but the unintended consequences.”

As I write this, I see small, piscine versions of Messrs (I don’t think there is a plural of Ms, so I’ll cheat) McIntosh & Soubry swimming in a barrel at my feet, and a metaphorical (honestly, Constable, the closest we come to weapons in this house is National Trust replica swords) rifle in my hand. It would be too easy, though to train my sights on two individuals and gun (still a metaphor, Constable) for them. It seems unsporting, even if I can bring myself to ignore the fact that they are two out of only 369 women who have been Members of Parliament since 1918 (there are 503 men currently in Parliament, by the way).

The appalling thing is that they are, of course, right in what they say and they issues they raise. People have an annoying habit of reproducing, and as yet I don’t think there is any exception to the general rule that it is the woman who tends to hog the whole self-centred pregnancy/birth/newborn thing. In facing up fearlessly to the (rather uncontroversial) fact that Women Have Babies, they’re asking the inevitable question: So What Does That Mean? The question, of course, is like pulling at a loose thread on a jumper; why educate girls if they are going to throw it all away by starting families? (You could, of course, go further and ask; why educate anyone, since they will ultimately die and waste it all, which is equally true, but I’ve yet to hear that one aired). Where do you stop, once you start to unravel the idea that people should have equal access to training and careers, regardless of sex?

I’d like to think that in 2013 the answer would not involve querying whether women should be there in the first place, but rather thinking seriously about how to address issues of parenting and work, so that we can make it as easy as possible for families of whatever shape to combine both to their best advantage. To not see childbearing and raising as a woman’s choices, or women’s issues, or women’s problems. While there are antediluvian rumblings from UKIP about women in the workplace, I’d like to think it would be inconceivable for relatively senior members of any governing party, whether female or not (as if that makes any difference whatsoever) to see something as fundamental as reproducing as a kind of “unintended consequence”, a technical error disrupting an otherwise blameless life of work and paying tax; burdening employers with all sorts of trouble and expense.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the looking glass, the government is making noises about addressing the issue of inequality in the workplace, with Maria Miller’s department bankrolling information packs to parents of daughters so that we can “broaden their aspirations and job choices before the start of their working lives” – as if, ironically enough, poverty of aspiration, rather than attitudes and circumstances, is solely to blame for women’s lagging status in boardrooms. David Cameron himself recently called on mothers to work outside of the home in order to boost the economy (conveniently, omitting to identify where this patriotic Mums’ Army would find jobs in a climate where most applications outstrip vacancies several-fold). There’s an increasingly frenzied hokey-cokey around plans to “help” working parents which seem more about a mating dance of being seen to be doing something than actually improving anything.

It’s anything but a coherent message. What, exactly,are we supposed to hear? Aspiration = good. Entrepreneurship = good. Earning = good. Inconveniencing anyone else with facts of life = bad. Women, and children, and families deserve so much more than this half hearted patchwork which reveals far more of the deep inequality which still exists than it manages to cover.


11 thoughts on “Joining the (polka) dots

  1. Fantastic post. I would imagine most women, if they go part time at all, only do that for probably 15 years, still leaving another 30 years of full time service around that- hardly a waste even if you adhere to their somewhat primitive argument! I would like to see a society where importance is placed on something other than money from time to time. Raising our children to be good members of society is an important role, but because it is one that generates no immediately visible profit it is often portrayed as valueless. Priceless more like. And however we as women choose to fit our work/parenting/own lives together is a personal choice, and one we should be supported in not villified or made to feel guilty for. Will be including this in next weeks round-up, thanks for tweeting me the link.

    1. Thanks for your comment (and for including the post in the round-up).

      I’m just so tired of this increasing sense that children are an inconvenience or an indulgence, rather than something fundamental. Tired too of our choices, whatever they are, being “wrong”.

      1. I completely agree. It baffles me how politicians and media can complain about values of young generation etc and be willing so little investment in them or the parents or care for them

  2. Brill, well thought out post as usual. What scares me the most is that it is another woman saying this, another woman putting down the act of raising children, saying that women are of less importance because the pop a child out of the nether regions. Why when women get to a position of power do they feel the need to belittle what other women do?

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      As I replied to Sonya, I find it so depressing that we still talk as though it’s a barrier or an inconvenience, and that we haven’t moved on yet to accommodating and accepting women’s choices.

    1. Thanks for commenting, and I agree with what you write (unsurprisingly!) – a broader focus on flexible and part-time working, not just for mothers, would make a huge practical difference.

  3. I am a female part time consultant physician, but I am also involved in peer (consultant and senior doctor) appraisal at my Trust, and what I am observing is that my female consultant colleagues career trajectory is different to that of my my male colleagues. Rather than working long hours and climbing the ladders early in their careers, then retiring early, going into management posts, research, medicolegal work or private practice, my female colleagues who work part time to accommodate a growing family in the early years of their consultant careers return to full time work in their 40’s very often enthusiastic, energetic and crucially with an enormous set of skills involving time management, delegation and multitasking. Is this really a loss to patient care?

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I hadn’t considered the point you make, but I agree that careers paths which are “shallower” and focussed less on progression, allow development of other skills and qualities which are beneficial to patients (or other end users). My own background is in law, and I think a similar argument could be made there.

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