On the day Joanna Gosling’s baby was due to be born, she'd hoped to be resting at home, but she was asked to work. They were short of cover, her bosses explained, so could she come in after all?
It wasn’t ideal; as a BBC newsreader, Gosling has the sort of job where you can’t just stop halfway through a bulletin if your contractions kick in. But she did it, she explained last week, for the same reason she never took more than three months’ maternity leave after any of her three children – not so much steely ambition, as fear. She was only ever on a contract, not in a staff job, in 20 years at the BBC, so there was always the possibility that contract would not be renewed. Or it could be scrapped and replaced with a worse one, as apparently happened during one of her pregnancies.
And she’s hardly alone in that fear. There’s a vast army of women now working as freelancers or on casual contracts or in gig-economy jobs that don’t offer maternity pay (or sick pay or holiday pay or pensions or any other kind of basic security). Female self-employment has shot up in Britain over the last decade and, while in some cases that really does mean women entrepreneurs starting their own businesses, an awful lot of them are basically working in other people’s businesses – as anything, from graphic designers and marketing consultants to Uber drivers, parcel couriers and digital PAs – except without all the rights they’d have as staffers. And that didn’t happen by accident, but because economic and political forces have pushed women this way.
We need to think much harder about how to make sure the freelance work that’s undoubtedly been so liberating for some women doesn’t become a trap for others
For some of the older ones, it's because they couldn’t find other ways of combining children with an inflexible career – the number of mothers working freelance rose by 70 per cent between 2008 and 2016, a recent meeting of the Women and Work All Party Parliamentary Group heard – while the younger ones often work in industries that have become increasingly casualised over the years. But, as the gig economy expands, those who started off in casual jobs in their twenties increasingly find themselves no more securely employed in their thirties, the age when they might be starting to think about having kids – only to realise that, financially and professionally, that's not going to be so easy.
Gosling was, it should be said, well paid for the risks she took. Her experiences as a working mother emerged at a tax tribunal, where she and other BBC journalists are appealing against large tax bills imposed, following an HMRC crackdown on people paid through personal service companies, which can be used to reduce tax but which, the journalists are arguing, were set up on the orders of their bosses.
But most freelance women aren’t paid anything like that much. And if Gosling – a well-known public face, working for an organisation run on public money, whose then-husband Craig Oliver would go on to become David Cameron’s press secretary – felt vulnerable at times, then imagine what it’s like at the bottom of the zero-hours contract pile. As with equal pay, where what happened to the BBC’s female stars kickstarted a debate about women on a tenth of their salaries, Gosling’s case raises some timely questions.
We’ve rightly heard a lot about the pressure heaped on parcel couriers or Amazon pickers who can’t afford to take a day off sick; about how difficult it is to complain about pay or conditions when you could be fired with no explanation tomorrow. But if the gig economy is changing the nature of work for everyone, it’s got particular and sometimes less visible consequences for women.
Labour shadow childcare minister Tracy Brabin (who has worked as an actor and so knows what it’s like to be in precarious employment) has suggested a campaign to make shared parental leave available to freelancers. It’s a good start but we need to think much harder about how to make sure the freelance work that’s undoubtedly been so liberating for some – giving women the freedom to work from home, juggle hours around to suit and otherwise carry on doing the thing they loved except with kids – doesn’t become a trap for others. Or what was a great leap forward for working women could easily turn into a dismal step back.