I’m following with interest the Labour Party’s promise to unleash, within the next few days, its “aggressive” (their word, not mine) plan to bulldoze and bully women out into the workforce. I use those two verbs advisedly, because the Labour leader’s use of the descriptor “aggressive” smacks more of the stick than the carrot.
How aggressive is this plan, exactly? Does Labour intend, for instance, to slap a tax on housewives as a sort of luxury good? Or an excise duty on staying at home and doing the laundry, perhaps? I doubt it. Imagine how that would go down, even if it were consistent with liberalism, the bottom line of which is the acknowledgement that everybody should be free to make their own mistakes, to sink or swim as a direct consequence of their own choices.
I’m the first one to say that women should be encouraged to be financially independent of their spouses, that it’s a good idea in these trying times for marriage, and that it restores a certain amount of dignity, self-respect and personal liberty. Two incomes also raise a family’s standard of living way beyond one.
Working mothers are also (this fact is often ignored) a good example to their children. So often, the glorification of stay-at-home-motherhood, in this day and age when machines do so much of the work, is the glorification of sloth with simple tasks stretched out to fill the entire week. High-achieving mothers, far more than high-achieving fathers, tend to produce high-achieving sons and daughters. This is because mothers, whether they work or not, tend to have the greatest influence on their offspring.
But I’m also the first one to know, because this has been one of my interests for a long, long time, the reason why women’s participation in the workforce is so low in Malta. It’s because women don’t want to work, pure and simple, and not because they can’t work due to childcare problems. Malta is one of the most accommodating places for women who wish to work. It’s just one big village, where we women live surrounded by our extended family, short drives (if not walks) away from helpful grandparents, aunts, siblings and the rest.
Maltese women are also not particularly keen on having children or looking after them, despite popular notions to the contrary. We have the peculiar coincidence of one of the lowest birth rates in Europe and the lowest female participation in the work force. Like us, Italian women are not particularly keen on having children, but the difference is that they all work, and really work. So basically, our women are neither working nor looking after sizeable broods of children. They are staying home to look after one, maybe two, children, generally with a space of four years between them. No amount of free childcare is going to tempt them out into the workforce. Staying at home – the point the Labour Party ignores – is actually a lifestyle choice.
Women in this situation will only go out to work if they have skills, abilities or professional training which makes staying at home and cleaning the floor or playing tennis a frustrating exercise in hovering below their potential achievement level. But if the only work a woman is able to do or find is the sort of work that makes staying at home really tempting, then she’s not going to work unless the money is an absolute and utter necessity. And by that, I mean the household being unable to put food on the table or shoes on feet without the money she brings in.
These women are not going to work so that the family can go on holidays, run more than one car, heat the house, buy better food and clothes, or save up so that their children can study for a postgraduate degree at an overseas university. They will do without those things and manage on their husband’s income. This is not a value judgement I am making here, just a statement of fact based on close observation of many women over several years.
There are other factors militating against getting women into the workforce. The most obvious is the fact that the lowest level of participation is among middle-aged women. Very, very few middle-aged women work. Though it’s true that women are now having their first children in middle age, at 35 or thereabouts, which means that they have children at home who need looking after, women who are today in their 40s, like me, generally had their children in their 20s. In just 10 years, there has been a huge generational shift. We women in our 40s have children in their twenties, or late teens at the least, and definitely don’t need to be at home. Yet how many women in their 40s actually work?
With women in their 50s, the figure is even lower. This is where some women get really bored of being at home, but childcare is not an issue. No, jobs are.
Women of my generation (and older generations were even worse off) had practically no formal education. The vast majority left school at 15 or 16 with a few O-levels if they had put their mind to it, and then did a typing and shorthand course, and that was it. Those who had even fewer skills went to work in factories. Some, but not many, took A-levels, but did nothing with them. Almost no women of my generation went to university. They were by far the tiny exception. It wasn’t only the social and political culture that militated against it (“women don’t need an education or training because they’ll get married and have children”). It was also the terrible problems at the university itself under the Labour regime, which was anything but liberal and progressive.
It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: it was precisely because women had little education and no career prospects back then that they married young and had children young. Then most of them got stuck: many women in their 40s and 50s today still have the level of education they had at 16. It is, if you are clinical about it, a social and personal tragedy of sorts. But if you are pragmatic or philosophical, then the line to take is that if they are happy and content, why rock the boat. If they are not happy and content, then yes, there should be training programmes available to help them make up in part, and it can only ever be a tiny part, for opportunities that were not available at the appropriate time in life. Those training programmes are there already, and the whole of university is open to them, free of charge and with a stipend attached.
Labour’s plan is half-hatched because it ignores the fact that the problem is not spread across the board but is generational and directly linked to education. The best way to ensure that women stay in the workforce is to make sure they are trained and educated to the hilt. The woman who has spent 10 years sewing jeans or assembling electrical components on a factory floor will be dying to give it all up when her first child is born, and who can blame her, even if it means less money in the household. The woman who has spent six years at university, or four years at design school, is going to be damned rather than stop working for longer than a couple of years.
That’s the way it works, and childcare is really just a side issue. The best policy on getting women into the workforce is education, not nurseries. Nurseries are good, but education is better. The tragedy of Maltese women is not the lack of childcare but the lack of education among women of my generation. And the blame for that can be laid, fairly and squarely, at Labour’s door. Today’s girls and young women are vastly different. They study hard, have all the opportunities they could want (free of charge) and are outstripping the boys academically. Nobody is going to keep them at home. Men without an education always found some kind of work, even if it was breaking rocks in a quarry or digging up roundabouts. For women, it’s rather different and always was.