Women's rights: why too much of a good thing is bad for you

Maternity leave is too generous. Mothers do not want full-time work. Maintenance payouts encourage gold-diggers. Positive discrimination has gone too far. And girls can't have it all.

Only a brave man would dare to utter any of these ideas but in the past few weeks they have all poured forth – from women. They form the basis of an increasingly fierce debate about gender roles in 21st-century Britain, conducted largely without input from, or reference to, men.

Baroness Deech, a crossbench peer and chairwoman of the watchdog for barristers, argued last week against proposals to protect women in cohabiting relationships. Such women should not be entitled to the same rights as divorcing wives, Deech said in a lecture, because they have chosen not to get married.

“Women do not need and ought not require to be kept by men after their relationship has come to an end,” she said.

Her comments were immediately denounced – by other women – as offensive and unfair. Marilyn Stowe, a senior partner of Stowe Family Law, said: “I believe that Baroness Deech causes gratuitous untold offence to women who may unwittingly find themselves in that situation; she even perpetuates what I believe is overwhelmingly a myth of “profiteering gold diggers” seeking to benefit from a cohabitation breakdown – when nothing, in my experience, could be further from the truth.”

In previous lectures Deech provoked wailing and gnashing of teeth by suggesting that maintenance payments in high-value divorces teach young women to marry for money and that feminists should focus on the high divorce rate as the single most important threat to women.

As if that were not provocative enough for champions of women's rights, last week Jill Berry, president of the Girls' Schools Association, said girls should be warned that it will be difficult for them, as women, to “have it all”. Even this seemingly mild assertion attracted strong responses from women.

Sarah Vine, commentator and wife of Michael Gove, the MP, wrote: “There is something drearily depressing about the assertion that girls must not grow up in the expectation of ‘having it all'. In setting out to teach young girls about their limitations, Jill Berry is going against the basic premise of education … Can't she see how potentially damaging this is? Not to mention sexist. Can you imagine the same lack of ambition being suggested for boys?”

Berry was taken aback. “One thing that has struck me, looking at the blogs, is that women can be hard judges of each other,” she said. “I've read some very vitriolic comments. Some women have criticised me in a way that men wouldn't dare.”

After years of wide acceptance of the drive for stronger female rights, are real divisions opening up among women about how that should be achieved?

HARRIET HARMAN, the minister for women and equality, is the standard bearer for more rights. She promises that her forthcoming equality bill will make a “fairer society for the future” by requiring employers to do more to address gender imbalance. But here again some women dissent, arguing that women's rights have already become “too generous”.

Nichola Pease, deputy chairman of JO Hambro Capital Management and a former director of Northern Rock, recently told a parliamentary committee that the legislative burden on business is “turning into a nightmare. I think we have got too long maternity leave – a year is too long”.

Although she declines to pursue the issue in public, she was expressing the same views in private last weekend. Alexandra Shulman, the editor of Vogue, and Anya Hindmarch, the fashion entrepreneur, have expressed broad agreement.

Another who thinks that extending rights to women at work has gone too far is Nicola Brewer, who was chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission until earlier this year. Brewer is concerned that legislation giving women lengthy maternity leave “has had the unintended consequence of making a woman less attractive to employers”.

You do not need to be a misogynist to believe the regulatory burden associated with women's rights might be daunting to employers – as evidenced by Toni Cocozza, who runs the London-based recruitment agency DP Connect. She argues that equalities legislation makes interviewers fearful of asking women questions about their intentions, because even to ask could result in a lawsuit.

“When people aren't allowed to ask those types of questions, even when those questions are burning in their minds, it does build up barriers,” Cocozza said. She believes the result is that clients “make up their own minds”, usually to the woman's detriment.

Despite these difficulties, the UK has more women working than any other European Union country. The number of women in parliament is up. The earning gap between men and women has shrunk and maternity leave has increased. Yet some women now argue that these supposed gains have not necessarily been in women's interests. As Cristina Odone, the writer, said: “The cheering and applause drown out the reality. This is not what women want.”

Odone used to believe that “success in life is measured by the work you do”; but in a report for the Centre for Policy Studies, What Women Want … And How They Can Get It, she argues that women with young children overwhelmingly do not want to hurry back to work. They only do so, she says, because government policy is slanted towards pushing women into employment by means of subsidised childcare and a tax system that punishes couples, even on modest incomes, who do not both go out to work.

Odone leans heavily on the work of the sociologist Catherine Hakim, of the London School of Economics, who argues that women deliberately choose low-status, part-time jobs rather than being forced into them by the expense of childcare or gender-based inequality. “From this perspective,” Odone says, “women are not victims but decision-makers. They place a low priority on careers and prefer to take work that allows them to enjoy family time.”

Odone happily attacks the the Harman agenda: “Imagine you're an ordinary woman and you are trying hard to have a bit of money coming in. You want to work, but you don't want to focus on that alone. And you hear the debate about women in work being hijacked by Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt. Their preoccupation with the glass ceiling and affirmative action makes you choke on your cereal.

“These are not your concerns. You are not worried about the glass ceiling but about finding an employer willing to give you a job. And employers say, gosh, Harriet says we have to hire lots of women and give them good opportunities and that makes hiring a woman unattractive, in terms of expense and paperwork.”

Odone thinks the present system can undermine the office morale of other women. Anecdotal evidence suggests she has a point, as the case of Alexandra Smith [not her real name], who works in the fashion industry, illustrates. Not long ago she was asked to step up to cover the maternity leave of a more senior employee.

“It was a good opportunity, but it was very difficult when she came back,” said Smith. “She got all the perks and the salary while I kept a lot of the responsibilities. Quite frankly, she is resented by all other members of staff. “

Fairness for some women, it seems, can be at the expense of others.

Odone says the problem underlying these issues is that “our work-centred culture is based on a fundamental conundrum: the economy depends on workers, while society depends on carers.”

Deech has made a similar point in her series of lectures at Gresham College in London. “We have no consensus about women in our society. We are inconsistent,” she said.

“On the one hand we hear that women should expect half of all top jobs and equal salaries; on the other we hear that a woman's job is to stay home and that, whether she has children or not, living as part of a couple is somehow damaging to her career prospects and that [in the event of divorce] she should be compensated for merely sharing her life for a while with a man.”

Deech's comments were partly prompted by proposals from the Law Commission, the government's legal advisory body, that when co-habiting partners split up they should be made to pay maintenance as if they had been married. It would apply if there were children from the relationship or if the couple had been living together for two years.

These proposals have been greeted by many women as a progressive measure. Not by Deech.

“It's awfully patronising to say that a woman with no children needs protection. What should a woman be paid for? Either you regard women as autonomous or you don't.”

She points out that the proposal would effectively force married status on cohabiting couples who have chosen not to marry. Indeed, critics claim the law could be used against women by gold-digging men.

One woman, who owns a house in Sussex and shares it with a man who does not want to get married, said: “Should we split, I would not want him to have any right to my property. Should this law be brought in, I would feel compelled to kick him out to protect my home.”

Yet many women do not agree with Deech and would favour legislation giving co-habiting women rights to maintenance.

Stowe was vehement in her response: “There are literally thousands of women materially disadvantaged by a breakdown in their relationships who, unlike Baroness Deech, do not have her powerful brain, nor her opportunities in life. They do not enjoy a life of luxury and privilege, whether they live with their partner or not.

“The proposals with the government based on a report by the Law Commission do not equate cohabitation with marriage. The proposals would only compensate a cohabitant who could demonstrate genuine economic loss as a result of the relationship breakdown.”

Deech is also critical of the high divorce rate. Moves towards easier divorce have historically been beneficial to women, previously trapped and powerless. But in Deech's view the introduction of “no fault” separations in 1969 led to a huge rise in divorces that have been bad news for women and society in general.

“Divorce is not a private matter, it is of real public concern and cost, with a ripple effect on the family, the community and the whole country. The poverty of divorced and separated women is an established feature. It is surprising that feminists have remained silent on the issue of divorce. If women ought to be protesting as a sex against anything, it is against easy divorce and a high divorce rate,” Deech said.

The sight of women arguing so strongly among themselves leaves some feeling bemused. Berry said that on balance she is pleased the debate is taking place: “It's great we're all talking about what women will need. We shouldn't beat each other up. But I'm also getting a huge amount of positive responses to what I said.”

1844 words. First published 22 November 2009. © Times Newspapers Ltd.