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What do women really want?

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Mark Easton | 12:21 UK time, Friday, 9 October 2009

British women, we are told today, are rejecting the materialistic model. The overwhelming majority would like to give up their careers and dedicate themselves to motherhood and, one suspects, the occasional budget apple pie.

Putting clothes in Washing Machine, Housewife, 1990This is the conclusion from Cristina Odone's report What women want ...and how they can get it [230Kb PDF] published by the Centre for Policy Studies (and linked to at its blog).

But reading the document, I do wonder whether this is polemic dressed up as research. The evidence for Ms Odone's argument is a YouGov poll which asked people whether they would work full-time if they didn't need the money.

She interprets the findings as proof that women "regard masculine materialist values as ultimately dissatisfying and reject a system fuelled by consumption".

Is that right?

The conclusion from the poll data could be quite the reverse: that women are working more than ever before because they absolutely buy into the materialistic model.

Far from rejecting it, millions are choosing to hand over some responsibility for the care of their children so they can earn enough money to participate fully in consumerist Britain.

The pollsters asked:

If it is/were not essential for you to work for financial reasons would you work full-time, part-time or not at all?

Seven out of 10 women said that even if they didn't need the money, they would want to work at least part-time. 15% said they'd want a full-time job while 25% said they would stop working entirely.

But the key to understanding the response is what people took to mean by the word "essential".

Does essential mean only what is required to put food in bellies and roofs over heads?

Or is it essential to have two incomes in order to pay a big mortgage? Or to afford that new car? Or a foreign holiday?

As a nation, we are almost three times richer now than when today's pensioners were starting a family. That affluence has transformed our way of life.

So the real question for most women may not be whether they want to give up work and look after the kids, but whether they would be prepared to forego some of the trappings of 21st Century lifestyle in order to be a full-time mum.

What would be really interesting would be to get an idea of priorities and sacrifice, but the question was never asked.

We cannot tell whether the 71% of women who say they'd continue working would do so because they love their job or because they enjoy the extra spending power.

The poll also poses a hypothetical question:

Imagine a family with a mother, working father and two children under five. Assuming it is not absolutely essential for financial reasons for both parents to work do you think it is best for the mother to...

Two little children, you don't need the money, should Mummy go out to work full-time?

Virtually no-one thought she should, but 50% of women still thought it would be best for her to get a part-time job.

This is cited as proof of the "rejection of work-centred culture".

The report argues that the poll findings "call into question government initiatives such as wrap-around schools and day care centres that have cost £21bn since Labour came to power". Ms Odone also cites an "income tax system that penalises single-earner couples with children".

All these policies are symptomatic of an attitude found right across the political spectrum: that paid work is regarded as the most important activity that we, as a society, engage in.

To challenge this attitude is regarded as highly subversive - a female heresy whose proponents must be condemned and punished.

The establishment should stop forcing women into a mould, and allow them instead to realise their ambitions.

It is a shame that the poll questions almost appear to have been framed to fit the argument rather than in the spirit of open-minded inquiry.

The central statement - "What Women Want" - is arresting but the survey never asks women what they do want.

Ms Odone might be right. Women may effectively be forced labourers, bullied and pushed to the coal-face by a government and a society that doesn't understand their domestic, maternal and caring instincts.

But it could be that they have made a free choice: to work full- or part-time in order, as they see it, to improve the standard of living for themselves and their children. Maybe some women prefer to have a life beyond toddler club and the changing mat.

Perhaps government and society are adjusting to a generation of women who demand more than a straight choice between children and a career.

I fear we shall have to wait for another report before we get the answer.

Update 1623: Thanks to commenter nottoonear for pointing out a slight inaccuracy - now corrected.

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