I originally wrote this for LabourList, but I thought it could do with a second airing on my own pages:
Whether or not you are inclined to believe that the Coalition’s recently announced spending cuts was a tactical rapier to women’s equality in the UK – slicing through decades of improvement in access, opportunity, safety and respect – the figures speak for themselves: of the half million public sector workers facing unemployment, more than two thirds will be women; last month, 75% more women signed onto job seekers than men; and benefits typically make up one fifth of women’s income, as opposed to one tenth of men’s. Truly, it is clear who will be hit the hardest by the £18bn a year in welfare cuts.
The equality gap between men and women is so pervasive, so all-encompassing and multifaceted that any response must first take into account the many things which unite us, before we explore those which divide. Children – deciding when, and if, to have them and how to raise them – is an issue everyone has an opinion on, but in the UK the reality is that women are designated carers and men are designated breadwinners, regardless of their ability or desire. The impact of this is jarring: Billions of pounds a year lost on wasted talent, huge pressure on relationships resulting in higher divorce rates, millions of children living under the poverty line, and corrosive inequalities for women in work and society.
So if I had only one policy for Labour’s electability, it would be this: Encourage shared parenting by promoting a system of flexible, paid, parental leave. Let me explain the seismic affect this will have for us all.
Due to the way the current parental leave system is designed, the returns on investment are poor. It’s true that in the past decade rights to maternity leave have increased significantly, to a current window of 12 months, with six weeks paid at 90% of pay, 33 weeks at a flat rate (currently £123.06 per week) and 13 weeks unpaid. And yes, during this time, the UK has introduced paid paternity leave…at just two weeks. Enough time to learn how to change a nappy and give your partner a lie-in after a 36 hour labour and emergency caesarian, perhaps, before you’re back to work leaving ‘Er Indoors with isolating responsibility for your wonderful, screaming newborn. It is not coincidental that women who do not have their partners present to help them day-to-day in the first year of their child’s life, suffer increased levels of mental health problems. Too many women are going silently mad, and this has nothing to do with how much they wanted a family and how deeply they love their children.
The Coalition Programme announced in May outlined a revised parental leave system which will allow the mother to transfer some of her leave to her partner after 20 weeks, but it is crippled by a reliance on both the parent’s employment records and the fact that it will remain unpaid. There is also an ingrained assumption that men and women are comfortable with the gendered roles assigned to them – that they’re only reinforcing what families actually want – but a wealth of recent evidence shows the exact opposite: A survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission taken in 2009 found less than 50 per cent of men (and fewer than 33 per cent of women) believe the provider role to be the man’s. Further analysis has revealed that only 23 per cent of fathers surveyed (compared to 34 per cent of mothers) think childcare is the primary responsibility of the mother; and over half of the fathers believe that the parent who is paid more should stay at work, regardless of whether they are male or female. We’re ready for change, but is Government and business?
If change must come from the top, then praise be that David Cameron took two weeks paternity leave to look after his daughter when she arrived early this summer. And with Ed Miliband now awaiting the arrival of his second child with a partner who has not made public her desire to leave her job for longer than is necessary, we are truly heading towards a modern Britain where a significant number of high profile politicians are also high profile fathers. But we have a long way to go before we could say the same of high profile mothers in the same sector, and those that are have made clear the debilitating pressure they face both working and being present for their children.
And so, back in the real world, where the majority of parents do not have the spare cash to spend on private child care and cleaners, we are faced with a major problem. Women’s career prospects suffer hugely from a system which structurally inclines them towards prolonged absences from the workplace. This is in addition to evidence that some employers’ attitudes to hiring or promoting women are forged by the likelihood that they, rather than their male partners, may be unavailable for work for long periods because of child caring responsibilities. Yesterday was Equal Pay Day, a sobering reminder that despite the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 40 years ago, women still earn, on average, 16.4 per cent less per hour than men for the same skilled jobs. In the UK, 64% of the lowest paid workers are women, contributing not only to women’s poverty but to the poverty of their children.
Quite simply, this is down to the fact that women occupy more of the available lower paid, part time and flexible jobs which give them time to look after their children too, or because they are passed over for training, promotion and pay rises for the evidence outlined above. Even if you’re entirely cold-blooded in your attitudes to women’s remuneration, note that the Women and Work Commission has estimated that Britain is losing up to £23bn per year due to the under-use of women’s skills – women who are able, and want, to work but cannot because of their duty of care. That impacts on all of us, not just women. Surely this is what we can rally around.
So yes, the spending cuts will hit women harder than men, but not because women are over-represented in the public sector – because they are under-represented in all other sectors. Labour was absolutely right to call for an equality impact assessment to address this in the first instance, but let’s be clear about where we apportion our anger. It is not unfair that women will be hit by the cuts; it’s unfair that they are still excluded from earning as much as their male peers, and that this is overwhelmingly due to their fertility.
Through my contact with the Fawcett Society and the Fatherhood Institute, it is clear that if Labour are to proactively move towards gender equality at work and at home, a new parental leave system must do three things: Ensure that men are equally liable to take extended absences from the workforce due to family commitments; provide choice and steer men towards taking leave, so that the default position does not remain with mothers; and make clear the fact that businesses can no longer operate as if employees have no family responsibilities. There are tactical ways to implement this, including reducing maternity leave and increasing paternity leave, splitting paid leave across the family unit, and enforcing breastfeeding rights for mothers at work.
We could do worse to look to our Scandinavian cousins who have been successfully running flexible, paid parental leave schemes since the early 90s. Norway has implemented a system of 54 highly paid weeks of parental leave, of which 10 weeks are available to the fathers, and as a result have seen 90% of men taking paternity leave. This is also supported by a target of 40% women in senior management roles and a reduction in the pay gap, both of which they are meeting. The UK is being humiliated into the second division of the equality league tables, outperformed in all respects.
My response to this issue doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the many wonderful ways in which families may organize themselves – multigenerational, heterosexual, homosexual, adopted, fostered and re-married. However, whilst it remains that children can develop very well with just one, loving caregiver, evidence shows that the optimum is three intimate providers. Who are we to dictate that mothers have a duty of care, when it is clear that children respond better to mixed families full of people who love them, regardless of their gender?
To respond effectively to inequality, we will need to question our current obsession with gender expectation; nowhere is this more deeply rooted than in the divide between the worlds of work and home. The systems of care we have in place are poorly designed for a changing society which actively seeks to close the equality gap, give women more opportunities to earn and fathers more time with their children, and they must be changed. I accept that kids aren’t for everyone and not all of us dream of having a family; but we were all children once, remember. The one thing that unites us all, regardless of our gender, orientation, religion or race – and especially our politics. And think of the message we risk sending the children of tomorrow if we can’t moderate our attitudes that suggest only women are fit to raise them.