Turning round the oil tanker: parental leave and flexible working reforms

18 Nov

Recent reforms of parental leave entitlements, and the extension of the right to request flexible working arrangements to all employees, may be seen as an attempt to change the culture of work/life balance in the UK.  Attempts at culture change are often contested and incomplete, and this one – born out of a restive Coalition – is no exception.

Many have pointed out the possible shortcomings of changing mothers’ basic entitlement in maternity leave to 2 weeks: possible expectation of early return to work; difficulties maintaining breastfeeding; inadequate recovery time following birth. However, mothers do remain entitled to extended parental leave beyond this brief maternity leave. Men’s entitlement to parental leave can only come to them via employed mothers who return to work and transfer remaining leave to them – this has been identified as a lost opportunity for greater sharing in parenthood. Both sets of concerns are worth voicing, but it is the second which is likely to prove more decisive in terms of (lack of) impact on the ground.  In practice, without independent entitlement to parental leave, the number of men taking up the opportunity to care for their infants is limited. In practice as well, all the evidence is that women will continue to take a substantial period of leave in their children’s early lives. The Scandinavian countries show not only that ‘daddy months’ work effectively to encourage fathers to take leave, but also that women continue to take up more parental leave.

Why does this matter?  Anyone interested in gender equality has to acknowledge that the ‘traditional’ pattern of men-as-workers, women-as-carers has a long reach.  For all our progress, it is still all too easy to assume that men remain worker-providers first, whilst women have a ‘choice’ between paid employment and full-time motherhood, or some mix of employment and childcare spread over the working week.  In reality, of course, both men and women balance lives as people, partners (or not) and parents, and employment enables families to survive economically. Yet the ‘working father’ is barely a concept.  Meanwhile the ‘stay-at-home’ mother or father can be labelled as variously yummy, unproductive, emasculated or just plain ‘lucky’ in an economy and society which fails to value unpaid work,  and which is often judgemental about those not in paid employment.

You could say that the ‘flexible working for all’ aspect of the reforms is welcome, ‘de-stigmatising’ requests for flexibility from the ‘mummy track’.  But of course, it is still only a right to request flexibility, rather than an obligation on employers to provide it, so we will have to see how fast the culture of long hours and presenteeism can be turned around. Holding your breath may not be the best strategy.  The reforms have at least wakened up the debate around the possibilities of remote working, or, more radically, the greater distribution of employment throughout society, if shorter hours became a norm.  But some jobs can never be done anywhere except on-site, and we still have the problem of maintaining adequate earnings, made only greater in a climate of wage stagnation. There’s a lot of attention on providing more childcare in the pre-school years to facilitate parents’ employment, but there’s still a big gap between school hours and working hours which creates a whole other problem, lasting over ten years for most families.

All these issues are still confounded by the ‘standard worker’ being seen as a man who works full-time away from home, and whose period of maximum career and earnings progression coincides with the peak years for childbearing.  If we really want equality, we have to enable men to take breaks for parenthood, as well as encouraging women to maintain positions in employment. That way unpaid work becomes everyone’s work, and paid work can be sustained more easily, even with breaks.  There’s still a lot to do.



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