Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How do you see your career?

I remember being 16. Don't sound so surprised! ;-)

I had just sat my Highers (university entrance exams). As the youngest in my school year I felt too young to go off to university but had secured several unconditional places so opted for a language degree at Glasgow in 1985. I was very proud as this was back in the day when very few people went on to university, and there were very few universities. I was particularly pleased as no one in my family had gone before me. It wasn't that we weren't intelligent; people of my parents' background simply weren't expected to go to university back in the 60s.

So off I went and I had a vague notion of how I expected my future to pan out. I was due to graduate with honours in 1990. With the European borders coming down in 1992, I was told the world (or at least Europe, would be my oyster). I learned two extra languages (Italian and Swedish) at uni to increase my options and figured that with those and French and German I could work in EU, or EEC as it was, maybe in translating or interpreting or simply work in business, in international exports or the likes. As a fall back I could even consider teaching if nothing else came off.

So the borders came down but the promised jobs never materialised, until I was offered a job in Bilingual Publishing. That suited me as language was still my passion. I started that at 23, six years after I had started my university course. Over the years many female graduates came and went, usually disappearing when they started a family. I also wanted kids but left that till I was 30 as I didn't want my degree to have been in vain. When I was 30 and Marcel was 6 months old, I returned to my full time job in Publishing. Private nursery cost me 35% of my salary but it was a specialised job so I didn't want to give it up for fear of not being able to find another once Marcel started school - the only other employers in that field in the UK back then were in Edinburgh or Oxford.

When I had Charlotte at 32 (in 2000), my childcare costs went up to 68% of my income. Once I added on the cost of my petrol to get to work I was working for less than £1 an hour but still I thought it better not to give up the day job. As a compromise I dropped to working 25 hours a week because it kept the job open but seemed somehow less pointless. So the country lost a third of my tax revenue and I worked for next to nothing.

I couldn't have any more kids if I wanted my job as the childcare costs for three would have been more than 100% of my income so I had no more till the two oldest were both at school. Around me both at work and at the school gate about 80% of women, all with honours degrees or similar, were giving up to be stay-home mums, going part time to keep their job open or simply muddling through freelance, if what they did suited working from home. Working freelance of course meant your income varied and therefore your ability to get a mortgage, car loan or similar varied equally. I would say most of the women I knew were struggling almost solely because of childcare costs.

I finally gave in and went freelance in 2008 when Anna was due to start nursery. Marcel and Charlotte were at school so I only had nursery costs for two, like most people, but salaries had stagnated and nursery fees had increased by 5%+ every year. I would actually have had to pay to carry on working with Léon and Anna at nursery.

Today when I stand at the school gate most women are not in full time employment. I know part-time and stay-at-home mums who have dentistry degrees, law degrees, science degrees, who are qualified teachers, who've worked in private industry as company directors. Isn't that a loss to the economy and a waste of their abilities? Did I see myself struggling freelance to pay a mortgage at 46 when I was 16? No, because no one had told me childcare here costs ten times as much as it does in other European countries.

Unless childcare is overhauled, there will be no way to add it into the equation once students loans are added, because I didn't have one of those to contend with. So my kids will have to decide between education and a family. Only one outcome in September is promising to address this issue.

As far as I can see every 16 old girl who votes no in September should be aware that in doing so they are condemning themselves to a twenty year career struggle followed by a twenty year catch-up. I know what I'd be advising Charlotte if she was 18 months older.

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