“Career Women Make Bad Mothers.”

I saw this proclamation splashed across a billboard for the first time just two days ago. It certainly struck me – how could it not? – but being inherently slow to rise to provocation I simply wondered what exactly it was advertising. I thought it must be ironic, stating something so outrageous in order to devalue the sentiment, much as comedians often make bigoted statements to mock those who make them in seriousness. As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Today I saw the idiotic statement again, this time in a headline on the Guardian website. It appears that on further inspection, the ‘Career Women Make Bad Mothers’ insult is actually an advertising slogan – selling ad space. No refutation of the claim is in the small print, nor is it in anyway relevant to the ad campaign. There was not a hint of irony about it. The only point this ad was making was that it can make a point, very publicly, and very offensively. The company behind it, Beta, didn’t even have a good excuse, except to state that “it is not what the campaign thinks” and to confirm the ad was being withdrawn as a result of the offence caused, offence expressed mainly online through mother’s forum Mumsnet. And why not? In this post-feminist era women seem all too often to be the one ‘minority’ people can still mock and, more often than not, get away with it. Can anyone conceive of an ad campaign being run in this country that made racial slurs or indicted homosexuals? No, and so they shouldn’t. But the same taboo should exist regarding gender stereotyping too.

The “kick in the stomach” that one Mumsnet contributor felt was felt by me too. Neither a worker nor a mother, but hoping to one day become both, this insult to my abilities and those of all my sex hurt on many levels. It was telling me what I could not be, it was telling me my own mother was inadequate, and it was telling everyone who saw it that this view was not parochial and outdated. Many British people would look at this statement and say – perhaps playing Devil’s advocate, perhaps not – “They have a point.” The problem is, people are hypocrites. All too often repressive and derogatory frames of reference hold sway despite developments to the contrary. Take my own dad, for example. He’d be one of the “They have a point” brigade (though brigade seems to infer too much vigour to his position – he’d spout it from the armchair, but certainly wouldn’t care enough to comment online or get into a heated debate with anyone outside the living room). And this, despite the fact his wife, my mother, was and is one of these much deplored women who somehow insidiously cheated their way into manning two posts at once – mother and working woman. And she was bloody good at it – in fact, had she not had work to distract her, I can only imagine I would have been at risk of overzealous parenting. Dad, though, forgets this when he wishes to embark on a traditionalist and short-lived rant.

Unfortunately the same is true of so many people’s opinions – what will be embraced in personal situations can still raise eyebrows when talked about as a general rather than a personal rule. This needs to change: awful, ill-conceived ad campaigns like this one are odious and detrimental to the public consciousness, and maintain irrelevant prejudices that should be long dead.

The offending ads are to be replaced with others such as “Educashun isn’t working” and “1966. It won’t happen again.” Not likely to mortally offend swathes of onlookers, but dire and negative nonetheless – this campaign has certainly achieved a lot of publicity, but I wouldn’t expect an upturn in company revenue as a result. If they need any other replacement slogans, let me put forward just one: “Ad Men Make Bad Decisions.” Catchy, no. But apt.


Libby Galvin

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25 Comments on this post.
  • Dave Jackson
    7 January 2010 at 15:52
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    To counter the argument that women are the only remaining group which can still be safely mocked, I would first quote Warren Farrell (shamelessly nicked from the wikipedia article on misandry):

    “In the past quarter century, we exposed biases against other races and called it racism, and we exposed biases against women and called it sexism. Biases against men we call humor.”

    If anything, women are far more likely to come up in arms about perceived offence than men, even when such outrage is disproportionate. Woman have conspicuous institutions through which they can make their viewpoints known and mobilise opinion, as they have done here through Mumsnet. There is no equivalent for men. Masculinism has nowhere near as much clout or credibility as feminism.

    Indeed, the one thing that this sequence of events should tell us that women aren’t fair game anymore, that hell hath no fury like a woman who thinks that somebody has cracked a joke about her lack of a Y chromosome. In 1968, feminist Valerie Solanas called for a complete gendercide of men – I wonder whether a man would get away with even joking about reciprocating.

    Those on mumsnet who were annoyed by this asked not for the series of adverts to be stopped, but for the “Bad Mothers” billboard to be replaced “with other slogans which work just as effectively” – in short, you can offend whoever you like, as long as it’s not us. I still don’t really understand how they have been offended by it, when they recognise that the company doesn’t actually mean what it put on the billboards. It’s about this sense of ‘perceived’ offence – they aren’t actually offended, but they can enhance their own credibility by taking the opportunity to pretend to be.

    Either that or they are crusading not on behalf of themselves – as they know that the ad company was only joking really – but on the behalf of the idiot majority on the street. If this is the case, I ask them how they would dare to be so presumptious and hubristic as to assume that Britain is a nation of closet misogynists, desperate to get women back in their place in time to make dinner and do the ironing.

    The advertising company were wind-up merchants and managed to catch somebody hook, line and sinker. The Mumsnet community are now getting more publicity than they could ever have dreamed of, by pretending to get offended at an imagined slight on their gender. It may be a win-win for them, but it only further entrenches this idea in society that women are sacrosanct and men are not to be trusted.

  • Angus
    7 January 2010 at 16:45
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    Sorry Libby, but I disagree- this article ignores the swathes of advertising campaigns that rely on undermining masculinity to ’empower’ women.

    Thank goodness Dave Jackson has put so succinctly what many of us (I imagine) have been thinking for quite some time. I would go one step further and suggest that any man considering himself to be a ‘masculinist’, would immediately be branded a misogynist before he could even open his mouth. This, surely, is the real gender imbalance.

  • Elizabeth Goddard
    7 January 2010 at 17:52
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    I was just wondering why you chose to call this a “post-feminist era” when you clearly think that it is unacceptable that women are the last ‘minority’ (incorrect word) group that continue to be mocked.
    You imply there was a feminist era that has now past?

    I’m also interested that you presume only men are behind this ad campaign?

  • Gareth
    7 January 2010 at 18:25
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    Not wishing to flog a dead horse, but I must agree that the slogan should not have been removed. It’s a simple freedom of speech argument that I shan’t bother recounting, except to say that the author of the article is also in education, so surely “Educashun isn’t working” will also cause offence – it after all is claiming that your efforts over the last 15 or so years have been a waste of time.

    Certainly, the press coverage plays into the hands of both the advertising company and the Mumsnet forum; it will increase profits for the former, and exposure for the latter.

    This is as far as I will go in agreeing with the above comments. It is not difficult to note the adverts where foolish men are mocked by their more intelligent wives, and doubted that the roles could be reversed without widespread female outcry. But this misses the point. These adverts are for products aimed at a stereotype of their aim demographic, which the advert panders to. And this presumption that adverts in which the roles are reversed are somehow forbidden is simply a myth. Advertising of male products has long been a simple task of placing a beautiful (read sexually objectified) woman alongside cars or aftershaves. Men and women are different and complex, and those with intelligence enough can see through this plethora of stereotypes, and are rightly dismayed by it. Our complaints regarding modern advertising methods should be for this, not that one sex is being unduly mocked due to a perceived post-feminist oppression.

    There is a valuable discussion about how the changing roles of women in the workplace will affect childcare which I believe neither the advertising company, nor mumsnet forum wish to partake in. While I do not wish to spout statistics, it is clear that more women are working than ever before, while the number of stay-at-home husbands also increases. These changes mean that the upbringing of children in years to come is an issue too important to be overshadowed by prejudice (perceived or otherwise).

    Here’s a new slogan – “In an ideal situation, every child would benefit from contact from as much contact with their mother as possible”. While managing to be even less pithy than which the author ended, it challenges us to asks us how, in an age of increasing equality of sexes, will a child’s upbringing be affected by the changing work patterns of their parents? I would ask that the press strip away the goading overtones of ‘Career women make bad mothers’, and discuss a question worthy of our attention.

  • Ollie
    7 January 2010 at 19:18
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    The idea that ‘masculinism’ should be as equal a force as feminism is silly, men have not been oppressed throughout history for being men as women have been for being women. Feminism has clearly helped the equality struggle, but there has never been a fight for the rights of men, nor need there be, and this advert serves to (mildly) dent the development of gender equality.

    Also disagree with the statement that children would ideally spend as much time as possible with their mothers as small children, there is definitely such a thing as over-parenting and working parents help kids be independent and ambitious for their own careers.

  • Dave Jackson
    7 January 2010 at 19:44
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    I would take issue with your assertion that feminism is a struggle for equality Ollie. While I wouldn’t venture to claim that this is how all feminists feel, there are most certainly branches of feminism which are more about female supremacy than about equality. If, as you argue, a masculine movement hasn’t been required because of a historical disparity when it comes to gender-relations, it could be argued that such a movement is required now to ensure a balance of power, of sorts.

    But then we obviously come onto the problem of treating genders equally when they are clearly not equal. It may be simple in principle to argue that women and men should be treated the same, but this has significant ramifications despite the noble sentiment because it throws conventional societal roles into a complete mess. What is a man’s role in society if he is no longer the ‘hunter-gatherer’ taking responsibility for supporting his family, after all? To what extent are women responsible for raising their children, and are men instinctively (some might say genetically) qualified to do it in their stead? It’s a question that society has yet to address, but it is still a very important one.

  • Angus
    7 January 2010 at 20:07
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    Of course ‘masculinism’ needn’t be an equal force to feminism, but it surely must need to exist (and our referral to it in inverted commas surely proves that it does not) if equality is ever to be achieved. How else can a reversal of the inequalities that the feminist movement sought to destroy be safeguarded against? There seems to be a belief that feminism will be made redundant when equality (or our perception of it) is achieved, but unfortunately with nobody to challenge that perception we may only get a glimpse of it before everything swings in the other direction and we start this whole thing all over again.

  • Angus
    7 January 2010 at 20:09
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    I began formulating a reply before the post previous to mine, so apologies for the reiterated points.

  • Libby
    7 January 2010 at 20:21
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    Dave – there is actually an equivalent service for dads, called ‘dadsnet’.

    I am neither advocating feminism in its militant sense, nor ‘masculinism’, but rather I think that derogatory stereotyping of the choices of any gender is inappropriate. Had the banner read “Stay At Home Fathers Are Not Real Men” I would have blanched at the sentiment, though perhaps not had as personal a reaction.

    Indeed I agree with Angus and Dave – there is a lot of advertising and other stereotyping which belittles men, and that is not a good thing. To defend women’s rights is not to denigrate men’s in anyway. This is not a supremacist argument, rather me saying I thought it was a poorly conceived, pointless and offensive ad campaign – and indeed it was.

    Gareth – I agree totally with freedom of speech, and the campaign has not been in anyway repressed or censored from above – rather the company responsible withdrew the ads when it realised they were drawing negative publicity. Indeed, we can indulge in conspiracy theories that it was all part of the advertiser’s master plan and that they have gained more publicity by being provocative, but the strong-arm tactics used by lawyers at Beta to remove negative comments directly attacking the company on Mumsnet suggests they do not agree that all publicity is good publicity.

  • Libby
    7 January 2010 at 20:38
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    Elizabeth – this is widely perceived to be a post-feminist era. Very few women today would describe themselves as feminists in the traditional sense, and the heydey of the feminist movement in the UK is long over. That does not mean that females no longer desire equality, just that most of the obvious boundaries have been removed and are thus not at the forefront of female consciousness in quite the same way.

    ‘Minority’ especially when in quotation marks is not the wrong word at all – I am using it in the sense of a sociological minority rather than a numerical minority, and according to the trusty wikipedia: “[A minority] may include any group that is subnormal with respect to a dominant group in terms of social status, education, employment, wealth and political power.”

    I don’t think that only men were behind this ad campaign at all, I just happen to know that the head of the campaign and its creative director is in fact male. Women in the company – career women no less – no doubt accepted the campaign and perhaps saw no reason for offence, but ‘women’ are not a uniform group who all hold the same views – neither are any non-ideological group. Many women can be misogynists as much as men – so often we can be our own worst enemies.

    And… aren’t you the SU Women’s Officer?

  • Kaye
    7 January 2010 at 21:17
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    Good to see that students still enjoy a lengthy chinwag. But David Jackson is sadly misinformed when he claims Mumsnet will be delighted with the exposure. We don’t actually need idiotic creatives with badly-conceived campaigns to give us any exposure – we are being courted by Cameron, Brown and Clegg who think we can hand them the next election. Apparently we are a powerful demographic or summat. See http://www.mumsnet.com/media/mumsnet-election

    Some of us evil career women who dare to have children and go to work even have jobs in the meeja. Including in advertising, journalism and media buying. Something Garry whathisface seems not to have thought about. But then, thinking about the impact of this campaign on his clients and their customer base seems not to have been his strong point. And him an adman and all… any of you students who want to work in advertising might use this episode as an object lesson in how not to do it…

  • Dave Jackson
    7 January 2010 at 21:37
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    Interesting, Kaye, how you’ve only cherrypicked a single point from my comment to dispute. I actually disagree with you that you don’t need the publicity, but maybe that’s because most people I know (mothers included) have never heard of you. In a country with millions upon millions of mothers, a monthly visitor count of 1million may sound impressive, but doesn’t exactly grant you a political mandate either way. As your website claims, you are not a lobby group – strange that, considering the rhetoric you are coming out with here about which party you are going to hand the election to. I’m glad you’re being courted by the political parties – now you can join the other 90 or so% of the electorate also possessing that privilege.

    As it is, you’re constructing a straw man here. Nobody has actually said that you are ‘evil career women’ – your organisation, whether deliberately or naively, has conjured that sentiment all on its own. Let’s be straight on the fact that this advertising campaign seems to have been designed to elicit the exact reaction that you’re giving. You can try to argue your way out of your utterly disproportionate response by trying to attach some kind of symbolic significance to it, but either way you’re not doing your cause any favours with this absurd display of moral outrage.

    Ironically, all you do by becoming so angry about this imagined slight against your gender is look a little bit too precious – surely this isn’t the effect you were going for?

  • Kaye
    7 January 2010 at 22:10
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    It’s not my organisation, I was commenting as someone who posts on Mumsnet (and happens to work in the media). The founders are probably a bit too busy to notice student websites, to be honest.

    But bless you Dave. I don’t know what you are studying, but generally I found when I was a student that doing the odd bit of research before I opined on a subject was considered a good thing. (Now I’m a journalist, of course, I’m prepared to develop opinions on anything, in 30 seconds flat if necessary.)

    Good luck to all of you in Nottingham, hope you manage to find work when you graduate even in these dark and depressing times.

  • Dave Jackson
    7 January 2010 at 22:22
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    One might be forgiven for being slightly misdirected by the following, then:

    “..David Jackson is sadly misinformed when he claims Mumsnet will be delighted with the exposure. We don’t actually need idiotic creatives…we are being courted by Cameron, Brown and Clegg…”

    Evidently my mistake was to actually read what you had written. Apologies.

    As for coming up with opinions in 30 seconds flat – I don’t think you have to tell us that. By all means, though, thankyou for deigning to grace us with your presence.

  • Angus
    7 January 2010 at 22:23
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    you’re clearly a pretty poor journalist if you’re prepared to attempt to disrupt a perfectly worthy debate with childish condescension.

  • Sarah
    7 January 2010 at 22:57
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    I have to say that it is not Mumsnet as an organisation that has campaigned to get the advertisement removed, just various Mumsnetters, irritated beyond belief at the casual misogyny it expressed. Imagine if the slogan had been ‘Men are rapists’ or ‘Black people steal’. There would have been an outcry and rightly so. But the ‘creatives’ in question – all male, needless to say, thought sexism was an acceptable form of humour.

    See, when I was at university myself, I really thought that all the feminist battles had been won. It just wasn’t an issue for me or for any normal person (I thought). But in the workplace, the statistics are grim. Look at the number of women on boards of FTSE100 companies. Look at the number of women who are partners in the major professional practices (20% is considered pretty damn good). And it’s difficult to understand how this can be when at graduate entry level, 50% of the employees are women and have been for years.

  • Kaye
    7 January 2010 at 23:03
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    “We” as in Mumsnet posters – they want our votes, obviously.

  • Robert Barham
    7 January 2010 at 23:44
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    A few observations before I hit the hay:

    1. I actually thought this was a decent article, and it’s clearly created a bit of a stir on the site. If nothing else, it will get people talking. Getting noticed is sometimes more important than getting people to agree with you.

    2. The campaign itself appears to have been aimed more at provoking discussion than making a political statement. So far as I can tell, the Outdoor Advertising Association created these posters to prove that in-your-face messages in the real world can drive people towards discussion online. They appear to have succeeded in this.

    3. As for my own view, I can understand why women would be offended by this, and to some extent sympathize with them. I’m just dismayed that, once again, offense is seen as legitimate grounds for removing a message from the public realm. The notion that because something is offending people it should be silenced has always baffled me. Sometimes the things that offend people are the things that most need to be said (admittedly probably not in this case).

  • Dave Jackson
    7 January 2010 at 23:49
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    Sarah, I don’t think it’s exactly unheard of for men to face casual misandry. One conspicuous example is from 2003 where a clothing label designed and sold shirts (and subsequently, other paraphernalia) with statements such as the following on them:

    “Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them!”
    “Boys tell lies, poke them in the eyes!”
    “The stupid factory, where boys are made”.

    There’s enough anecdotal evidence of men being told that we can’t multi-task (and that women can’t park) to suggest that gender-mockery goes both ways.

    I could ask, for example, what would happen if male-only car insurance companies began starting up in the current political climate. Note that the supposed male alternative to ‘Diamond’, known as ‘Bell Insurance’, has nowhere near the level of publicity towards its gender orientation. In fact I doubt it even is specifically for men anymore, as a cursory look at the website doesn’t make it clear. It’s a very specific example, but also an illuminating one.

    Coming onto the issue of ‘feminist battles’, the problem I have with the outcry in this instance is that those against this billboard have looked for a battle that wasn’t really there to be fought. I have no doubt that there is genuine misogyny out there (just as there is genuine misandry), but do you really think that in the course of these events, you have been fighting for gender equality? All I see is a group of people jumping at shadows.

  • Ollie
    8 January 2010 at 13:20
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    Dave – the overwhelming majority of feminists certainly would say that their cause is one of achieving equality. The militant female supremacists you talk of are proportionately infinitesimal and you do a disservice overblowing their influence.

    There is no need for any type of ‘masculinism’ to ensure a balance of power as you say, Sarah’s stats prove that power is still disproportinately on the side of the male population.

    You tacitly condone conventional societal roles but all they have served to do is trap people in lives they are expected to lead. I say all this as a man, who is not out to do any damage to his own sex I might say.

  • Helpful Chap
    8 January 2010 at 14:17
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    What are these “women” things you all speak of? I had heard rumours about them…. and “career women”? Surely that’s just smashing two unrelated words together? A bit like “graduate job” really. Given that the latter don’t exist, I shall conclude the former is also an illusiory concept, and hence that the ad campaign is merely code for an impending invasion of killer beer cans.


  • Dave Jackson
    8 January 2010 at 15:23
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    I’m sure the overwhelming majority of feminists would say that Ollie, but it doesn’t do to accept what somebody says as truth purely because they say it! For example, affirmative action (sticking purely on the subject of women here, not getting into a discussion of LGBT/race relations etc) is a concept not restricted to the fringes of discussion when it comes to feminism. Harriet Harman declared a couple of years ago that she was in favour of making it lawful for companies to discriminate on the grounds of gender when candidates were equally qualified. The stated intent is to promote equality – the actual result would be encouragement to employ women purely because they are women. These are not the same things, and should not be seen as such.

    We’ve all heard about all-women shortlists, and how in 2002 it was codified that sex discrimination laws don’t apply them. Having one rule applying to one gender and another rule applying to the other is not equality Ollie, nor is it the path to equality. It would be a grave error in judgement to mistake putting women in a privileged position for granting women equality.

    Sarah’s stats show a particular side of the argument, but then there are lies, damned lies and so forth. I could equally produce stats which show just how fragile the male position is, but you will have to wait for Issue 201 to see them I’m afraid.

    I don’t actually tacitly condone anything. I am merely pointing out that male and female roles in society are in question and have not been truly defined, considering the strides forward that women have made in the past century. Women are not the only ones trapped by society’s conventions, after all.

    We’re getting slightly off topic here I think, getting more into a (quite interesting) discussion on gender relations instead of talking about the advert in question.

  • Angus
    8 January 2010 at 15:41
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    You’re entirely missing the point, my proposal of the idea of ‘masculanism’ is actively different from the idea of feminism. I’m not disputing the inequalities that do still indeed exist, but an equal society is surely impossible without equal representation from both sides. I was proposing it as a safeguard for the future.

    Referring to Sarah’s figures, (and I know that I am about to tread on dangerous ground), do you think that perhaps for many women it is impossible to put in the amount of work required to reach board level and to raise a family (and not simply because of their gender)? I imagine that a large majority of those 50% of graduates wish to become mothers, and many of them would wish to be actively involved in their child’s upbringing. This too is true of men becoming fathers, but society (and the law) generally considers a maternal influence more important than a paternal one. This is plain and simply because a mother’s instinctive emotional connection with a child is deeper than a father’s- she, afterall, has carried that child for 9 months.
    From my short experience working in an office I found that those who aspire to the highest level jobs aren’t necessarily the most qualified, but instead the people who are prepared to work overtime, or at weekends, and go over and above what is required. This makes them stand out , and demonstrates devotion to their work. This is presumably indicative of their vested interest in the company- a necessity for anybody working at board level. To raise (and have a vested interest in) a family alongside is not impossible (many women do achieve it), but it is certainly a challenge- perhaps one that not everybody is able to achieve.

  • Ollie
    8 January 2010 at 21:29
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    Dave, I still disagree about many of the things that you have said but I agree we’ve gone off on a tangent and this isn’t the place, so I eagerly await your article in 201.


  • Lucy Hayes
    11 January 2010 at 19:22
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    Rob, the article wasn’t removed purely because it caused offence, but because the ad campaign realised they were not getting the publicity they’d hoped. It was a commercial decision rather than censorship of any kind.

    I believe that ‘post-feminist’, as an era, can mean working towards equality for all – not specifically empowerment for women. Angus, while you are very right that often men are more willing to sacrifice their family lives for the sake of the careers, we need to consider why this is so – and indeed, why it is ever considered necessary. Sites like Dadsnet are also working towards equality, so that it can be seen as more socially acceptable for a man to be a father first and a ‘provider’ second, if that is where his desires lie. Personally I do not believe there can be full equality in the work/family balance until we stop talking about ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ and start considering ‘parents’.

    Some countries have taken this step, providing generous paternity leave that not only improves the family dynamic but assists both parents in getting back to work after having a child, as the leave is generally staggered rather than taken concurrently. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4629631.stm

    Call me a crazy liberal but I don’t think it should be necessary to make a choice between ‘career’ and ‘family’. Many women have stated that after returning from maternity leave they found it harder to get back to their previous position on the career ladder. If all parents took leave around the time of their child’s birth, it would lessen the discrepancy between men and women’s absence from the workplace, and perhaps then level the playing field for promotions. Dave, this is not me promoting women’s rights at the cost of men, I like to think that fathers would also like to see their children occasionally and would appreciate a chance to do so. And yes, this does mean that people would take a little more time off work across their lives than they do now, but I think the priority should be creating a happy and stable home environment. And, to end on a completely non-gender-specific note, career people might find it easier to be parents as well.

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