Archive | October, 2017

Many happy returns?

10 Oct

Two policies aimed at narrowing the gender gap in earning and caring have recently attracted attention.  The first, shared parental leave, introduced 2 years ago, has been up for assessment of take-up and impact; the second, a government scheme to encourage returners to public sector professions, was unveiled at the end of the summer.

These two eye-catching initiatives share an important underlying feature: they are operating on shoestring budgets.  Shared Parental Leave – which was touted as a response to ‘Edwardian’ patterns of division of labour –  ended up as a scheme where the government’s own estimates of take-up ran at an underwhelming 2-8% of fathers.  In fact, research conducted since its introduction, indicates that take-up may be even lower – one recently quoted survey in the Guardian found fewer than 1 in 1000 employees had taken Shared Parental Leave; it’s reckoned that fewer than 9000 fathers took it up in the year to March 2017.  Set against 695,000 births per year, progress is slow indeed.

So, what are the reasons for low take-up? Shared parental leave is, in fact, a system of transfer of mothers’ maternity leave to fathers, rather than an independent entitlement for men. It therefore excludes many families where women are not entitled to maternity leave.  Next there’s the crucial issue of pay: while many employers provide enhanced maternity leave packages, Shared Parental Leave is paid at a Statutory Maternity Pay levels – currently around £140 per week.  This contrasts with more widely used schemes overseas, where men have an individual entitlement to leave, and payment is set at a generous fraction of actual wages.  As we still live in a world where many fathers are chief wage earners in families, few can afford the loss of income inherent in the British system. Thirdly, there’s the culture thing: taking leave is often viewed as a threat to future promotion prospects, and so men are often reluctant to volunteer for it. The cynic might say, that having seen what happens to many women’s careers, who can blame them? …

This brings us to initiative number two – the government’s new schemes for people who have taken time out of the workplace.   Five million pounds have been pledged to cover three public sector professions: social work, the civil service, and allied health professions (e.g. paramedics, speech therapists and radiographers).  This amounts to 100 places for returners to social work, 50 for civil servants, and 300 returnships for allied health professions.  As somewhere in excess of half a million people work in these areas, this seems something of a drop in the ocean. In the private sector, returnship programmes are becoming more popular, and the government is currently consulting further on these.

These initiatives accompany high employment rates for mothers, and three-quarters of economically inactive mothers say that they would like to return to work.  As ever, mothers of the youngest children are least likely to be employed, so sharing care in the early years is likely to be key to women’s future progression in employment, and also opens up the possibility of men doing more caring work.  With around half of younger fathers saying that they would like a less stressful job, or that they would be prepared to take a pay cut in order to contribute more at home, governments should be thinking creatively about re-balancing the workforce to improve life for parents and children alike.  But creative thinking is not enough. In a climate of wage stagnation and economic uncertainty, statutory pay levels are too low to be a feasible option for many parents contemplating shared leave; and returnships will only be transformational for carers when they are both more widely available, and less associated with the ‘mummy track’.  In fairness to the government, they have made their returner schemes open to men as well as women, but given the current imbalances in who takes time off, this may be a bit cart before horse.

The frustrating thing in all this, is that lack of transformational change is entirely predictable: on Shared Parental Leave, policy experts and civil society groups explained that without dedicated periods of leave for fathers and adequate rates of pay, the scheme would fail to take off; and while returnships are welcome to reincorporate skilled women into work, they will also fail to make major headway if they are not accompanied by wider efforts to prevent mothers from falling out of the workforce in the first place.

Again and again, flexible working arrangements have been found to be vital in retaining parents in the workforce, and to job satisfaction.  While there may be reluctance to commit major resources to these issues, the evidence shows that investment often has good returns. Homeworking and flexible working may raise productivity, and can reduce costs by enhancing staff retention rates. In Scandinavia, it has been found that the more months of leave fathers take, the higher the subsequent earnings for their partners.  The Economist reported this week that a German policy to provide a right to kindergarten places was 60% paid for by the taxes of women returners – and of course these women are likely go on paying taxes throughout their lives.  If our government could actually commit to proper investment in a more equal workforce (as well as in the childcare sector which is currently suffering from under-investment in the flagship 30 hours free childcare scheme) returning to work might generate the kind of monetary returns the economy currently needs.  You could call it a realist’s money tree.



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