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Who'll do the cleaning after the glass ceiling is smashed?

AMONG many joyful scenes in the new stage musical 9 To 5 – to which audiences in Glasgow will be treated later this month – is an all-singing, all-dancing office transformation.

Desks are brightened up, family photos liberated from drawers and pot plants defiantly plopped on tables. "Productivity's up!" declare the show's feminist heroines shortly thereafter, reminding the audience that a more human approach to business benefits everywhere.

What's great about the scene, and indeed the rest of the show, is that at no point does it pit the female workers against their male colleagues, who are just as keen to challenge outmoded rules and stick it to The Man when the man in question is a bullying, backwards, chauvinist boss.

If only such divisions weren't implied by the policy debate currently surrounding employment, which conceives of two distinct, homogeneous groups – women and men – scrapping over scarce jobs. Look a little closer, however, and it becomes clear that in many cases "women" is being used as a synonym for "mothers" – and that when it comes to parenting, mothers are being treated as the only ones who matter.

As recently reported in The Herald, Holyrood's Equal Opportunities Commission is consulting on women and work over the next two months. Childcare is just one of five main topics of focus, but closer inspection suggests the woman-equals-carer assumption informs several of the others. The notion that women are the ones who suffer when flexible or part-time hours are less available perpetuates the idea that only women should or do seek to fit paid work around unpaid caring. Fathers who might wish to do the same don't get a look-in – a fact that won't help change the attitudes of those who still view non-breadwinning dads as emasculated anomalies.

Women are under-represented in boardrooms and CEO posts in the UK, and it would appear motherhood does not account in full for this discrepancy. But while initiatives aimed at encouraging girls to pursue non-traditional careers are always to be welcomed, given the sexism that has held us back for centuries, we must be careful we don't stigmatise those who pursue more stereotypically "feminine" work such as caring and cleaning. The MSPs point out that women are "taking on part-time, low-status or low-paid work" – but who do they imagine will do such work after the glass ceiling has been smashed? There's a catch-22 here: an implied acceptance that these "womanish" jobs will always be low-paid and perceived as low-status ... because it's generally women who do them.

Commentators may believe women are being pushed into such roles (after being elbowed out of the running for other jobs by men), but what message does this send to those women who choose such work? That they are letting the side down? That they only believe they have an aptitude for these occupations due to false consciousness? Feminism should not be about increasing options for women only to despair at them when women make the "wrong" choices.

Women in higher-status fields are also caught in a bind. The sisterhood is divided not only in terms of work type – drudgery versus brain stimulation – but in terms of life priorities. A woman can be a mother (actual or aspiring) or she can be a "career woman" (or, worst of all, a "career girl"). There is no in-between. There is no woman who chooses neither to have children nor to attempt climbing the greasy pole all the way to the top. Such a woman would have to be conceived as somehow thwarted. But perhaps – just perhaps – there really are some who not only don't want "it all", according to the popular definition, but want different things altogether. Radically, they may want a comfortable life, a decent income, a stimulating job, and free time to enjoy with a partner, family or friends. Shockingly, a man might wish for exactly the same.

It's time we looked beyond simplistic divisions. What we don't need right now is a them-versus-us scrap that conceives of any reduction in flexibility as an attack on women – all women, and only women. What we need are more good-quality jobs for all.

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Careers and Jobs

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