During times of military exercise or industrial expansion, women pose a useful resource to employers in even the most sexually hegemonic of cultures. Politicians urge women to leave their spatulas and kitchen sinks to join the workforce under the heart-tweaking adage of patriotism and national spirit. "We Need You!," they proclaim in colorful posters and media spots. However, when the market resizes or the men return, those same politicians thank the women kindly for their work, and, with the threat of nationally high unemployment, send them clattering back to the kitchen with little justification for job loss other than patriotic gratitude and entrenched beliefs of social mores.
The modern working woman struggles to balance work and family, as the Second Wave of feminism propels her firmly into the workforce, hurtling her through social cliche with promise of gender equality at the office and balanced life at home. However, traditional gender roles maintain a fixed devaluation of her performance, unable to balance all of work and birth, nurse, and raise the future at home, until the rise of the Third Wave of feminism. Led by the very women who left home for an office in politics, the promises of egalitarian family and workplace movements have swept the integrated halls of Europe, where "family values" and "workplace equality" are simultaneously projected in government and real life.
While the United States sags behind, European leaders proved true to a growing pressure in their workforce, constructing beneficial social policies that relieve the pressure on working families extracted by a patriarchal society. With working mothers facing growing stress at home and in the office, their political voices grew louder. "I'd like to think that the reason why the boys are no so interested is that they've seen the light - the innate justice and good sense, etc. - but in truth, the interest is far more to do with electoral strategy." While the promotion of gender equality has not hailed as their driving force, the result remains the same, and in France and Britain, a more gender-balanced workplace and family life is parroted by governmental policy.
In 2000, the French government cut the standard work-week to thirty-five hours, applying a sacrosanct new balance to the lives of two of three French workers. While the government's effort was to lower unemployment by greater employment distribution, the policy resonated with the specific outcome of a work-life balance that echoed throughout society. Only five years later, the French were forced to recant in the face of the international threat of outsourcing, returning to the traditional forty hours.
Nevertheless, while economic issues forced working hours back to meet international pressure, the social adjustments made by careful policy lay entrenched in European conversation. "Politicians who talk about the work-life balance show some understanding of the aspirations of ordinary people."
The European Commission of 1999 stressed that while women's labor market participation, working conditions, and working preferences were well-documented, the need for a work-life balance policy would have to reflect the universal need to reconcile the temporal arrangements of both work and family. It concluded, "beyond maternal employment, other areas are poorly mapped or entirely uncharted. Paternal employment and parental employment at the household level have received very little attention." Fostered by research at the Nottingham University School of Sociology and Social Policy, the British government confronted this unseemly fact: while policies that allowed for mothers to embrace family life without losing their careers fostered a new ease for working women, they upheld the traditional patriarchal system of gender politics.
By promoting a system in which mothers, rather than fathers, bend their professional lives to meet familial needs, parliamentary policy fostered a clear discrimination in the labor market. In 2002, 73% of women in England were employed, compared with 84% of men; if women have pre-school aged children, the figure drops to a mere 75%. What researchers call the "one and a half earner" proves that the methodology in place politically that substantiated women's right to leave work for family life and later return summarily denied them access to a discrimination free workplace, marginalizing them to sectors of employment where discontinuous work histories and part-time jobs were acceptable.
At the same time, the UK has one of the highest levels of part-time employment, where there are also the lowest rates of pay and "poorest working conditions." Females facing full-time employment earn only 82% of their male counterparts' salaries, deemed to be the widest gender pay gap in Europe. When stretched to the maximum and comparing the salaries of male and female part-time workers, the gap is astronomical, with women in the United Kingdom earning only 66% of what men do; in Sweden, the number is 84%. London was forced to reconcile itself with the problem; family policy that allowed for maternal leave was an indirect form of sexual discrimination incongruent with the ideals of an organized, civilized, advanced society.
As a result, under the leadership of Parliament and steered by Tony Blair, governmental policy shifted. The rise of Work-Life Balance, Work and Parents, Supporting Families, the New Deal for Lone Parents, Sure Start and the National Childcare Strategy gave rise to an egalitarian approach to gender policy, stressing that women should be equal with men in earnings and labor market participation.
Programs that began in the late 1970s in Britain after Equal Pay, Sex Discrimination, and Race Relations legislation passed fostered a new era of politics in the UK in which systematic discrimination gave way to new approaches for equity. However, while the legislation put Britain in the lead for racial parity, it continued to lag behind in its approach to family life and workplace gender-based equality.
In 2000, Tony Blair put his national policies to the test. With his wife's pregnancy and impending birth, the international media were consumed by hype: would Tony Blair maximize on his own policies and take paternity leave? Ultimately, of course, he did; under his administration, Britain passed a seven-day paid paternity leave for new fathers, and taking "a unique opportunity to re-inflame the nation's passions," he reaffirmed not only the importance and legitimacy of the policies that provided for equal protection under law and employment for parental necessity for both sexes, he also proved that the man is just as vital a part of the home-life as the women. If Downing Street can exhibit the importance of paternal home-life and workplace equality, the symbolism will ripple through society.
Yet, while the Prime Minister took leave of office to stay at home with his newborn child and post-partum wife, critics proclaimed the move as one of noteworthy modulation: "To date," wrote the New Statesman, "the moodshift has been more buzzword than policy: legal backing to the fine words was, in one negotiator's words, 'minimalist and mealy-mouthed.'" Lagging increasingly behind Sweden and other smaller, left-wing European countries, the parliament had stipulated in policy that leave for children under five would be unpaid and would only be open to those whose children were born in 1999 onward. The launch of the Labour Party's Work-Life Balance initiative, therefore, remained unattached to actual gender balance, and more entrenched in voter appeasement than new social drive.
Speculators wondered if Blair would "dare" make the gesture, a social move garnering as much public debate as perhaps policy would; ultimately, in taking the leave, Blair was able to reinforce the importance of the new policy despite the dearth of significant social bank in its authors. "In those few spring days in early May, there could be an awed, magical sunlit hush over Chequers, cloaking a globally discussed, never-before-seen phenomenon of a national leader putting family before power. People would speak for years afterwards of the time that the Blairs were there, still in office blissfully incommunicado. Who knows? People may even start to miss him." The theoretical stand took Europe by storm, and the growing strength of the European Union called for a mandate of "Gender mainstreaming," allowing for equity between men and women from issues as mundane as housing to as obtrusive as employment.
While Britain fought to embrace the votes of the new value-driven working woman, France avoided the topic obliquely. "France ignored discrimination issues because it was afraid they would open an American Pandora's box, where calls for minority rights led to fragmentation. It was France's excuse not to do anything." Eric Fassin, a sociologist at the Ecole Normale Superieur in Paris, said that the gender-mainstreaming would standardize the working and labor issues in France in a novel way. Unlike Britain, France was slow to curtail the male-power traditions of its past in the workplace; centrally articulated policies that affected the entirety of Europe would be their driving force for change.
Europe is working on standardizing working and labor conditions, which means that the sea level will rise rather than fall," observed Harvard's Kennedy School of Government professor Laura Liswood. "The Swedes aren't going to lower their standards, but the Turks," - and the French - "will have…