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Support for working parents key to tackling gender pay gap

Published: 22 Mar 2016

Sarah Jackson OBE

It’s great to see real political muscle behind closing the gender pay gap in the UK’s workplaces: the Government has recently accepted a voluntary approach isn’t working and is bringing forward regulation to make sure that employers report differences in pay between men and women in their organisations. Part of the aim of this reporting has to be prompting employers to think about why they still have a gender pay gap.

The answer will be complicated: there are structural factors like the value placed on women’s participation in the labour market, prevailing views within particular workplaces and sectors, and unconscious bias in recruitment.

But, the lion’s share of caring responsibilities continue to be shouldered by women. And this continues to cause damage to their careers. And their earnings. Research we published earlier this year confirms that mothers remain the first port of call when childcare arrangements break down: a telling insight into the fact that we’re still more likely to expect mothers to be able to juggle their jobs and their families than fathers.

That’s why I’m delighted to see the Women and Equalities Select Committee’s solutions for stamping out the gender pay gap which tackle head-on the need to support working parents.

The Committee is recommending a new right to paid, non-transferable paternity leave – new fathers would be able to take up to three months leave during the first year of their child’s life, once their partner had gone back to work. International experience tells us that such use-it-or-lose-it leave can make a lasting difference – to assumptions by employers, to the way that care is shared at home and to women’s future earnings.

We are approaching the first birthday of Shared Parental Leave, a welcome scheme that allows new parents to share work and care in the first year of their child’s life. Our research shows that, even though it is in its infancy, it’s started to permeate into workplace culture: employers who have seen take-up told us that fathers now have a better understanding of what it’s like to be a working mother! More seriously, opening up parental leave to fathers helps us to get away from the decades-long assumption that this is a ‘woman’s issue’. The Committee is proposing that fathers could take six weeks of the new leave paid at 90% salary. In one stroke, this would mainstream paternal leave.

Just as welcome is the Committee’s recommendation on flexible recruitment. Shifting the starting point for advertising vacancies – so they are all flexible unless there’s a real reason why they can’t be – can only be a win-win. Employers will be able to attract candidates from the widest possible pool, and our experience shows that working with the grain of employee’s lives is rewarded with loyalty and engagement that makes itself visible in the bottom line.

And for working parents? We know that more than half of working mothers think about childcare implications before they apply for a new job, or even a promotion in their existing workplace. We developed the ‘Happy To Talk Flexible Working’ strapline for employers to show that they’re really open to a discussion about how a particular role could be done flexibly and to ensure they attract the widest range of candidates. This would make a real difference: empowering those people who have other commitments they need to juggle with work to have upfront conversations and to make the most of their talents in the workplace.

Ahead of the 2015 General Election we worked with colleagues across the voluntary sector to produce a Families and Work manifesto, putting forward proposals on how to make work, work for everyone. We called for a standalone period of paid leave for new fathers. We called for a flexible by default approach to recruitment. And we also called for a right to ‘adjustment leave’ to allow employees to take time out to adjust to life-changing circumstances, such as the diagnosis of a child’s disability, or becoming a carer, without having to give up their job.

The Committee is recommending a new right to six weeks leave to deal with caring responsibilities. Eight out of ten unemployed parents of disabled children gave up work around the time their child was diagnosed, and for many this meant they had been out of the workforce for six years or more. Support at the time of crisis could make all the difference to managing unexpected events and keeping people in work.

We know that millennial parents want a different deal on sharing care and work – the radical solutions proposed by the Committee could deliver a generational step-change.

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