Caring values

9 Feb

In an interesting juxtaposition, the headlines have been shared by two stories: Labour’s plan to double the length and raise the pay rates for paternity leave, and research showing that 160,000 workers in the care sector earn less than the minimum wage.

At first the two may not seem related, but on reflection they represent two aspects of the same issue: in our society caring work is undervalued, and rates of pay fail to reflect the efforts and skills of those doing it, or the value to society of the relationships this work builds.

I’m all in favour of men being given more opportunity to take paternity leave and also to share parental leave in their child’s early life – the evidence indicates that this is often a positive thing for families and for gender equality. In Sweden, where men have been entitled to a relatively generous parental leave regime for years, it’s been shown that every additional month of leave taken by a father is associated with a 7% rise in annual income for the mother of his children; and fathers who have taken parental leave tend to see their children more in the event of parental separation or divorce. In Iceland, where men are entitled to not one but three ‘daddy months’ , both breastfeeding rates and mother’s employment rates are amongst the highest in the world. And many point to evidence relating fathers’ involvement to good educational and social outcomes for children.

Labour’s plans for paternity leave may well be a step in the right direction, but they present a few issues as well: they are talking about raising the pay for paternity leave to national minimum wage level, which is a considerable improvement on the current very low rates, but nothing like the level offered in Scandinavian countries, or comparable to many fathers’ actual wages. Furthermore, while this reform would go a little way to making UK paternity leave more affordable, it also poses the question as to whether statutory maternity pay and shared parental leave should be raised to the same level. From an equalities perspective the answer has to be yes; besides, if the argument is that better rates of pay create better incentives to take time for care, it’s hard to see why this changes after the first four weeks of leave.

And these issues of incentives and equalities remind us again that paternity leave is granted in a context – a context of our expectations around, and the value of, care. It seems very difficult to argue that paternity leave should be better-rewarded than maternity leave, even if the economic reality is that men are often better-paid. The gender pay gap is in considerable part a result of attitudes and past behaviour in terms of who does the lion’s share of caring and domestic work. This brings us back to the story about underpayment of careworkers: over 80% of these workers are women. So no matter which phase of life we’re dealing with, and whether the carers are family members or a paid workforce,   the matter of gender won’t go away. Workers in childcare are not notably well-paid either, and also tend to be female. So if looking to give parents a break and to enhance choice around employment and care, it might pay to take a long look at the whole infrastructure of support for families. It’s often said that who dares wins, but the electorate might appreciate a greater understanding that who cares often loses. Changing that might get a few votes.



One Response to “Caring values”


  1. Paternity leave & shared parenting: Labour boldly opens door marked ‘Do not open’ | workflex - February 12, 2015

    […] the Telegraph does have a point. For, as a number of more thoughtful (and knowledgeable) analysts have noted since Monday, an extra two weeks of paternity leave does not a revolution in shared parenting make. […]

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