Deborah Hill Cone: Hold my calls - the bichon frise needs me

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I once negotiated a flexible working hours arrangement with my employer. It was a kindly meant but awkward mistake and Sue Kedgley's kindly meant but awkward new law forcing employers to offer flexitime to people with children is a mistake, too.

I asked to work only four days a week and to have Fridays off. Like the new law, it sounded fine in theory but didn't allow for human nature in all its snarky, fecked-up, sideways-glancing messiness.

Quite rationally, my colleagues never really understood why I didn't turn up on Friday when they were still required to. Not only that, they also had to answer my phone. I confused things further by feeling guilty and popping into the office anyway.

I sensed there was resentment that I was getting special treatment. And I understood why. Wouldn't you be deeply miffed to have to work late, while breeder colleagues say toodlepip to watch Saskia and Cosmo's star turn in the school play?

Bad example, I know, as we would all choose work in preference to suffering through prepubescents performing Gilbert & Sullivan, but you take my point.

Can childless workers choose special hours to accommodate commitments for something else important to them such as looking after their irritable bichon frise or learning Morris dancing? Not likely.

The flexible working hours law is positive discrimination and, like other affirmative action programmes, it is conceptually dumb and practically dumb.

Ideologically, discrimination is wrong. Some muddle-headed people will argue that the "no discrimination" position should be traded off against other concerns, to help redress past wrongs or whatever, but I bow to distinguished economist Thomas Sowell: "If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labelled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today."

Dr Sowell's work on affirmative action has found that, in countries from India to the United States, preferential treatment programmes produce great hostility for very little actual result.

The programmes he looked at were mainly race-based but it seems to me the principles are the same whether you are giving special breaks to people for being black, or being female, or having kids.

This is not to say that there are not ways to combine caring for a family with work. The most successful is to become an independent contractor or self-employed. Then you can work in your jarmies or take the day off to treat your child's nits without having to answer to anyone - as long as you meet your deadlines. Of course, this is not going to be a viable alternative for many "process worker" type roles: you can't easily outsource making McDonald's fries or checking widgets in a factory.

And those are precisely the working mothers who do it to put food on the table rather than to pay for a new chef's kitchen. Which brings us back to the need for flexible working hours.

The problem is, like it or not, women who have children are always going to be second-class workers and no law can redress this. The reason is: when push comes to shove, their children come first.

Before I had a child, work came first. Now my family does. Men and women without children don't have this dilemma. Employers realise this and, while they will make informal moves to help parents muddle along in balancing kids and work, any formal discrimination process risks backfiring on the very people it is trying to help. Of course, in the big picture our best bet to help hassled parents is to focus on increasing our international competitiveness so more mothers can work from home doing whatever: writing Morris dancing software or providing online bichon frise therapy.

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