Three ideas to make this country a better place, for women, for men, and even for business
Published: 8 Mar 2018
I’m in charge of a team staffing our free legal advice helpline, both by telephone and email, but I can also rely on more than 30 volunteers from partners, associates or trainees from seven law firms. We have created a ground-breaking email platform, making pro bono advice possible 24/7, when, where and how they want to do it.
What is Working Families, and why is an organisation like us still needed in 2018? The easiest answer is to tell you what I spend my days doing. At Working Families we want work to work for everyone, and almost all of us work part-time. Let me outline two days of a fairly typical week.
On Monday morning I was on the helpline and, amongst others, I wrote to Helena on whether an employee mother can take Shared Parental Leave if her partner is self-employed (the answer is yes by the way, if he’s self-employed he can’t take SPL himself but if he’s worked enough he can create the necessary entitlement for the mother). I also replied to Kelly about whether a collective agreement negotiated by a trade union can impose a change of roster to a working mother and how to challenge it – as she won’t be able to do many of the new shifts for childcare reasons.
I also talked a new mother on late shifts whose manager refuses to let her work from home in the evening when she comes back from maternity leave – whether she could claim constructive dismissal as she will need to resign, she can’t commute that late with a tiny baby.
‘She needs more than rights’
Our usual caller is indeed a woman (83%), on low income (70%). She is often BAME, single or a parent of a disabled child and she needs more than rights. She needs help to understand what they mean in the murky daily events of the workplace. She needs our expertise to appreciate whether a change of shift is a violation that should not happen. And she needs us to get the confidence to confront her employer. Without us, the UK’s beautiful laws about anti-discrimination, access to justice and dignity at work are irrelevant.
Later, I wrote our referral report for the year 2017, analysing in particular how the people who contacted our helpline found out about us. The majority – 58% – through an internet search. We have really useful – and well drafted – advice pages.
On Tuesday I trained 19 advisers from various London law centres on helping parents at work using case studies with questions ranging from ‘when should I tell my manager I’m pregnant?’ to ‘what do I do when they tell me my fixed term contract is not renewed?’.
I also brainstormed with some of our partners on how to improve protection from redundancy for new mothers.
‘The tip of the iceberg’
As you can see, I spend quite a lot of my time talking about maternity discrimination at work. Why? And how does this relate to International Women’s Day?
We know that 54,000 women per year in the UK lose their jobs because of maternity discrimination. And that’s the tip of the iceberg, we don’t count the women who face problems once they are going back to work. Or the ones facing fears of problems that they would face if they decided to go back to work. Or the ones who feel guilty just telling their manager they are pregnant.
Sex discrimination has many forms but I believe that it becomes pervasive once childbirth and childcare start to mark women off with problems that their male equivalents do not have to bear. Certainly, as a young and ambitious French avocat, I did not feel any different or at any particular disadvantage to my male friends. But unlike many of them, I have not become a partner or set up my own law firm. Instead, once I had children, I started working part-time, took a three year career break and have ended up in the charitable sector, earning a tiny fraction of what they’re earning (not that I regret any of this though!). It tallies with the figures that show that the gender pay gap starts hitting once women enter their 30s, not before.
So what can we do to make it stop? On what should we press for progress?
Big subject! I could talk to you about the cost of childcare which eats up a third of earnings in this country according to the OECD, (compared to 10% in Germany) but my favorite solution, is through the law. After all – I’m a lawyer.
So what should we press for? Interestingly our two current leading campaigns are not targeting women. They are gender-neutral or aimed at fathers, but I think they’re probably the best solution we have to end (or at least significantly reduce) sex discrimination.
First, an extended paternity leave because we believe that once employers see that men too can slip off on long periods of leave, they’ll stop seeing women of childbearing age as a time bomb waiting to explode and they will learn to manage the risk that any employee – male or female – will take periods of parental leave. And it’s not actually bad for business, I believe that it is, on the contrary, good for business to welcome back these returners. They have had the chance to step back from their day to day job and take the longer view. But yes, it is disruptive in the short term and it needs to be managed.
Second, flexible working from the outset. It has been nearly four years since the right to request flexible working was extended to all employees with 26 weeks service. But our research shows it’s not a panacea – especially not if it simply means flexibility to work long hours at a time or location of your choosing, and also not if it’s a right that people are too scared to use. We need flexibility as the norm in every role – thinking through job design properly at the point of recruitment would stop this just being about doing employees – often mothers – a favour. A simple solution is to add “Happy to talk flexible working” to recruitment adverts.
And personally, I would add a third one. As we’re leaving the EU, why don’t we look for inspiration from the Commonwealth? In Australia, they have not only sex but also carer as a protected characteristic. Sex and maternity discrimination protections, wonderful as they are, may seem a bit unfair. We sometimes have single dads who desperately need to change their hours because they need to pick up their children from school. If their employer says no, they can’t do much about it, they don’t have the mothers’ secret weapon: indirect sex discrimination.
The reasoning is that a blanket refusal to allow your employees to work flexibly puts women at a particular disadvantage compared to men because they traditionally bear the main burden of caring responsibilities. As we want employers to stop seeing women as the annoying expensive ones, the easiest way to do so is to show them that actually, men can also be annoying and expensive. There won’t be any point in targeting women if your male employees give you just as much grief.
So there you have it. Three ideas to make this country a better place, for women, for men, and even for business I believe. Now let’s press for progress!
If you would like to speak to someone about your legal rights please call the Working Families helpline on 0300 012 0312 or email the advice team on firstname.lastname@example.org.