Archive | employment RSS feed for this section

What next for parental leave and flexible working?

9 Oct

It’s National #WorkLifeWeek , and appropriately enough, responses are due on elements of the government’s consultation on its Good Work plan to support families.  This is seeking views on parental leave and flexible working policies. Views on Neonatal Leave, where parents need to attend hospital if their newborn is ill, and on transparency in employers’ publication of flexible working and parental leave entitlements, need to be submitted by 11th October.  Meanwhile, questions relating to government policy on parental leave, require responses by late November.


In bold contrast to other areas of current policy, the government is keen to emphasise trade-offs in choosing between different options in these schemes. There are a lot of questions about the relative merits of different lengths of parental leave, and of levels of pay entitlements and capping.  It’s like that bit in an eye test where they ask about whether you see better with lens A or B, but without the part where you get the sum of all the options for your best vision.


Like the Gender Equality Roadmap before it (cited in the Good Work plan, and which I blogged about earlier ) there’s a lot of observations about things we already know, without much sense of an overarching commitment to resources in the area.  This is an issue when the choices being asked about, often seem to boil down to ‘do you want people – especially fathers – to be able to access additional periods of leave, or would you like them be better paid?’.  As the status quo is widely viewed as inadequate in terms of length and pay, it all feels like a bit of a damp squib.  To its credit, the plan does look at international evidence, and it addresses the importance of wider culture change in enhancing mothers’ ability to return to work, and fathers’ ability to spend more time with their children.  But it doesn’t seem to provide much direction with what it sees – it’s all a matter of trade-offs, you see.  This might seem fair enough in a consultation, but options to extend leave and pay entitlements together, tend to be couched in terms of risks to labour supply, winners and losers in different groups, and concentrating on the economic costs, rather than social benefits. There’s an implicit feel of ‘this is going to cost’, without much attention on how costs of extending fathers’ leave may be partially offset by more mothers in the workforce.  If you want something closer to Nordic policies – and many do, and they have the benefit of being relatively effective in getting mothers back to work and Dads on parental leave – then you need to commit at a national level to put resources in.  This means financial support, but also assistance with practical ways of encouraging behaviour change in the workplace.  Without  resources, we’ll be consulting ad infinitum on why take-up of shared parental leave is so low…


The plan also discusses options around publishing flexible working and family leave policies, and advertising flexible working at point of hire.  Mumsnet has been running a campaign to #Publishparentalleave so that employees can make informed choices about jobs. A proposition to make employers’ flexible and parental leave policies accessible via gender pay gap reporting, has been welcomed by a range of organisations.  The consultancy Timewise has sounded a note of caution regarding enforcement of advertising flexibility, as it may raise the prospect of ‘flexwashing’ – that is, employers stating flexible options are available, without meaningfully providing them. They argue that employers need additional resources to implement flexible working properly, and that government could fund guidance and support.  The options for reforming parental leave and pay raise similar issues: without an infrastructure of universal, high quality, affordable childcare, and resources to provide better levels of pay for periods of leave, and without tools to encourage senior managers to take leave themselves – and to manage and promote others who do so – we could end up stuck in the spin cycle…




X marks the spot

4 Jul

The government has just published its Gender Equality Roadmap, launched with a flourish yesterday by Penny Mordaunt, in her capacity as Women and Equalities Minister. 


The Roadmap charts the types of disadvantage women encounter at different stages in their lives and sets out government initiatives in response.  So far, so good … but the trouble is that the roadmap is hardly new, and the responses aren’t big on concrete action either.  Researchers and policy analysts have been charting women’s lifetime economic disadvantage compared to men for years –  and counting the cost (and calculating the value) of childcare and elder care.  We know that women’s career trajectories leave them lower-earning in prime years, and under-pensioned in old age, compared to men.  We also know that girls are less likely to enter scientific careers, or to find jobs in the most lucrative sectors of the labour market.  Like many reports before it, the roadmap talks about engaging girls in STEM, but has little to say about enhancing the esteem in which traditionally female sectors of the labour force are held, or encouraging boys to get involved in them.  The Roadmap acknowledges that the benefits system has not always met the needs of women, and proposes that Universal Credit will simplify the process of claiming and improve  outcomes for women.  This claim is rather hard to reconcile with the evidence that Universal Credit has driven many to foodbanks during the long waiting periods before payments are made.  No mention is made of the single payment per household, a feature of Universal Credit which campaigners have highlighted as having potentially negative impacts for women. 


The Roadmap discusses Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and flexible working, as policies which can contribute to closing the gender gap in earning and progression at work.  While it is welcome that the government is reviewing the current SPL system, and ‘celebrating’ employers who offer beyond the statutory levels of pay, we already know that without higher pay levels, Shared Parental Leave is a non-starter for many families, however well-disposed towards it parents are in theory.  And we also know from international evidence that our current system falls well short of the conditions required for it to become a mainstream option – I’ve blogged about this repeatedly – e.g. here.  The Roadmap proposes a new digital tool to inform parents better of their leave and childcare options, but without more resources it is hard to see how this will make any significant difference to take-up.  Pilots for innovation in flexible working may be more promising, but we do seem to have been stuck at the pilot stage for a long time now ….


 The Roadmap does acknowledge a range of factors including direct discrimination and harassment which contribute to women’s disadvantage, and it makes mention of intersectionality and the value of care work as well as its costs. It also flags that the Government Equalities Office will now sit in the Cabinet Office, which should aid cross-departmental working.  But, as the Women’s Budget Group points out, identifying the issues is a first step, and the solutions to gender inequality require financial investment – in public services, in childcare and social care.  Instead of a Roadmap, perhaps we need a treasure map, with X marking the spot where a budget for women’s needs is to be found. 


Gender pay gap reporting: the sequel

5 Apr

Last year I wrote about the advent of gender pay gap reporting, with a little help from the Undertones.  Today gender pay gap reporting enters what might be called its difficult second album stage.  As it’s an annual event, we have to ask has anything changed since last year?


In short, not much.  The headline figures show that the overall gender pay gap has remained virtually static, moving from 9.7% to 9.6% this year; sector-by-sector analysis published in the Guardian shows that the gap has in fact widened in most industries. Like last year, almost four fifths of companies pay men more than women. Overall, 48% of companies reported a smaller gender pay gap this year, meaning that in 52% of cases, the gap remained the same or grew wider still – as for so many issues in the UK, the gender pay gap presents a divided picture.


Some of the industries with the highest proportion of female workers report some of the biggest gender pay gaps.  Although education and care are resolutely female-dominated, a private care home provider and two academies trusts reported amongst the biggest gender pay gaps of all, with women earning 33p or less for every £1 earned by men.  This is indicative of women on the frontline, in relatively low-paid sectors, who are managed by senior men.  These figures point to a lack of progression in many traditionally female roles, with men getting more opportunities for promotion, or being recruited from outside to take on executive posts.  


The pattern of job mobility at senior levels currently seems to favour men’s careers.  In my blog on last year’s figures, I wondered if the relatively high gender pay gaps in public sector organisations (often majority women, and yet often with men at the top) might be explained by women being retained in posts with flexible working, but where their chances of promotion were weaker.  Writing about the civil service, Jane Dudman shows that pay structures work against women looking to move into more senior roles.  There is a cap on internal pay rises which disproportionately affects women, as they are less likely to leave for private sector jobs. When men do this, it can be a route back into senior civil service posts, when they return on much higher salaries, increasing the pay gap between men and women.  This explains why in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, female directors who have risen from within the civil service, are paid less than male directors who have come from higher-paid roles outside. 


You might say why don’t women just do the same as men and move around to enhance their pay?  The answer, I think, gets to part of the heart of why gender pay gaps are hard to shift overnight.  While the civil service, local government and health service jobs may offer flexibility, often to acknowledge women’s caring work at home, they do not promote these flexible workers as often as might be expected.  The lure of the well-paid outsider is often hard to resist when recruiting at senior levels. And the women maintaining their careers through flexible working arrangements often find it difficult to move outside, as they may not get the same deal on flexibility elsewhere.  The answer may lie, therefore, at least in part, in enhancing parental leave and flexible working arrangements for men.  If all working parents routinely take some time to accommodate family life, then the gender pay gap may be encouraged towards equality. 


Today also marks the fourth anniversary of the UK’s shared parental leave policy.  As I have written in the past, the model we have here is far from ideal, in that it does not include a freestanding period of leave for fathers.  The Nordic countries are exemplars of the impact that more equal leave structures can have – in Sweden, men take up a quarter of all parental leave days and have a ‘daddy quota’ which is theirs alone, and lost to the family if they do not use it.  Sweden enjoys very high rates of maternal employment. However, Sweden still has a gender pay gap, explained by familiar patterns of men entering higher-paid sectors of the workforce, and working full-time in greater numbers.  Even at the vanguard of culture change, work towards equality remains to be done. 


Back in the UK, gender pay gap reporting has driven the debate around gender inequality at work up the agenda and ensured that the conversation about the factors underlying the figures is high-profile.  If we are to move beyond talk into transformative action, we need to strengthen the incentives towards concrete action to narrow the gender pay gap. Perhaps every five years companies should be held accountable for their action plans.  These narrative accompaniments to the gender pay gap figures are currently produced voluntarily, and it could be that giving them more teeth is a further steer in the right direction, as the Fawcett Society has suggested.  The gender pay gap tells us a lot about the value we give different types of work, and how we accommodate caring for children and family members alongside formal employment.  To level the playing field between men and women we need to take more than baby steps. 


Mind the gaps: transport and gender equality

9 Nov


Have you heard about the ‘gender commuting gap’? The papers have highlighted a finding published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), that men are more likely to commute long distances to work than women.  Over 60% of those who take at least an hour to reach their workplace are men, while in the East of England – a key region for commuting to London – this rises to 76%.

The ONS noted that men predominate among those making long commutes; those commuting longer distances into London; and those who work in a different region of the UK from the one they live in.  Meanwhile, women make up the majority of people who travel to work in 15 minutes or less.  Nonetheless, women are behind a general rise in long commuting times: the number of women travelling for a least an hour to and from work in the capital, has risen 46% since 2011, and in the country as a whole, women have experienced a 39% rise in long commuting times, compared to 27% for men, over the same time period.

So what’s behind the headline figures? Researchers have sought to delve deeper, and provide some insight into the numbers.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) used a different dataset to explore how parenthood and caring responsibilities might be associated with travel-to-work times.  They analysed panel data, where the same people are followed over time, to show that the gender gap in commuting opens up when women have children, and continues to grow over time.  In fact, the gender commuting gap, like the gender pay gap, grows year-on-year ‘for at least a decade after the first child in the family is born’. That’s right, the impact of having children can be seen in the gap between mothers’ and fathers’ pay and journeys to work for at least ten years. Of course, the IFS is the first to say that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the link between the two gender gaps is causal – we can’t say for certain that working locally leads to lower pay.  But it could be that such a relationship exists – the IFS speculates that opting to work in a smaller area could restrict women’s employment options, compared to more free-ranging men, and it is even possible that employers benefit from mothers choosing local work: they don’t necessarily need to compete as hard on wages if locality is key, compared to firms seeking to attract workers from further afield.  Other changes in parents’ working arrangements, such as part-time or flexible work also contribute to the gender pay gap.

The ONS mentions TUC research on growing commuting times for people who work in health, education and social care, as a possible reason why women’s commuting times might be increasing more than men’s – women make up the bulk of the workforce in these sectors. These jobs are not notably well-paid, and rising housing costs might explain why such workers are travelling longer distances to get to work.  This links with further analysis by another think tank, the Resolution Foundation.  The Resolution Foundation shows a generational dimension to commuting trends: younger workers are commuting for longer than older ones, likely explained by high living costs in city centres.  At the same time, millennials are earning less than previous generations, due to the long-term squeeze on pay since the financial crisis, so they may not be profiting from longer journeys to work in the same way that some older workers (notably men with families) may have been able to.  Taken altogether, the evidence suggests that women may be more likely to end up with both longer journeys and relatively poorer pay in future.

The picture of interlocking gender commuting gaps and gender pay gaps, led me to think about how important it is to view childcare, as well as transport, as infrastructure.  Parents who commute further often rely on others to do the school run, or to take children to childcare settings; such workers are still predominantly men, while the people dealing with the children are often women, many of whom work relatively nearby.  Interestingly, cycling is the most male-dominated means of transport for commuting, which seems emblematic of more men’s ability to make their own journeys, without the encumbrance of children or other caring responsibilities.  Cyclists may also be the kind of commuters who have access to better-equipped workplaces, able to accommodate changing facilities and bicycles.  Behind individual commutes of all sorts, there’s often a web of support, enabling those trips to be made. If childcare were considered more as part of the country’s infrastructure for investment, just as railways, buses and cycle paths are seen as integral to labour markets, then current gender gaps in experience might begin to disappear. Something tells me it could be quite a long journey from here to there.




30 hours free childcare: still complicated

31 May

Figures newly released from Wales, show that take-up of 30 hours free childcare per week – available to 3 and 4 year olds with parents in work – has been considerably lower than expected.  For a flagship government policy, aimed at improving outcomes for disadvantaged children, and at enhancing mothers’ opportunities in the labour force, this must raise questions in the corridors of power.

Back in 2015, when 30 hours free childcare was first slated in the Queen’s Speech, I wrote a blog outlining some of the issues which were likely to open up in the gap between rhetoric and practice.  In the intervening period it has remained one of my most popular pieces.  It’s a policy area where the solution offered seems simple, but which encompasses an impressive range of potential pitfalls.

Three main factors demonstrate the problems with the offer.  First, 30 hours free childcare is offered to children where parents are working – it is not a universal offer.  While children in some of the most disadvantaged families can access 15 hours free child care from the age of 2, and all 3 and 4 years can access 15 hours per week over the school year, the enhanced 30 hours offer is limited, at the lower end, to those earning at least the equivalent of 16 hours National Minimum Wage per week. The lack of universality is an issue, as some of the families where early childcare might be most beneficial, may not be eligible, due to lower or no earnings for at least one parent. Secondly, there is a timing issue.  As parents are not eligible for free childcare from the end of maternity or parental leave, the 30 hours can be viewed as too little, too late.  For parents who have had to go it alone in the period between their child’s first and third birthday, some may be unwilling or unable to change existing providers when eligibility eventually kicks in; others may have already done the calculation of costs of childcare (rising at rates of 7% last year) versus wage packet (stagnant), and left the workforce altogether.

Thirdly, providers are struggling (as was warned from the start) to meet the conditions of the offer without cross-subsidising the free hours through new charges elsewhere.  The hourly rate paid to providers by the government, may not reflect full costs, and has not been uprated this year.  The funding rate is complicated still further by interaction with other policies. Increases in the National Minimum Wage mean that staff are now more expensive, and auto-enrolment in pensions will make employer bills still higher, as outlined here.  Of course, such employment policies are positive in a relatively low-paid sector of the economy, but if funding for children’s places does not reflect these costs, a hole remains to be filled.  Some may bridge the gap by employing cheaper, less well-trained staff; others lower staff to child ratios.  Meanwhile, parents working longer hours will pay more for cover of hours above the 30 provided free. Some nurseries now charge for items (e.g. meals) and excursions that were previously included in fees.  Moreover, commentators have started to raise concerns that large-scale providers could go bust if the funding pressures become  greater. As local authorities provide fewer childcare services directly, private sector organisations are increasingly important.  A recent Guardian piece noted that commercial providers may be less accountable in terms of how they use government money, and distribute costs between themselves and parents. They also need to bring profit to investors. In more deprived areas the pressures may be magnified, as quality childcare is more patchily available, and there may be little capacity to cross-subsidise the free offer through additional charges elsewhere.

In her feminist takeover of the New European, Caroline Criado Perez today makes the case for universal free childcare as an integral part of achieving gender equality.  She points out that 25% of mothers in the EU cite unpaid care work as the reason for their lack of participation in the jobs market (compared to only 3% of men).  The UK has amongst the most expensive childcare in the region, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the partial solution on offer here is proving unpersuasive for many.  The generous policies of countries like Sweden, which provides daycare for all children at an enviably subsidised rate, alongside relatively well-paid parental leave, is beginning to prove a pull for workers from Britain, other parts of the EU, and beyond.  In an article for Swedish radio, an Irish woman talks about how being in Sweden means she can be with her child in the early months and not worry about costs when she returns to work, or about having to give up work altogether.  Thirty hours free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds in the UK still risks failing to meet this test for many parents.



Got the numbers – why not use them?

7 Apr

Ah, the gender pay gap – have you had enough of it yet? It’s been in the headlines rather a lot lately, thanks to the government’s new reporting regime,  which means that all organisations with over 250 employees had to get their figures in during the first week of April.

So what do the numbers measure? Not equal pay, which is the business of all employees being paid the same amount for the same job, as dealt with in the Equal Pay Act of 1970, whereby pay discrimination was outlawed; but rather the difference between men and women’s average hourly pay in the same company.  At this point, the chorus of dissent begins: it is not illegal to pay men and women differently if they are in different jobs at different levels.  There may be all sorts of good reasons why men and women are paid differently –  e.g. the airline defence: it’s not the company’s fault that nearly all the pilots are men, and most of  the stewarding crew, women.  Also, some argue, if the impetus is to reduce the gender pay gap over time, some companies may offload their least well-paid (predominantly female) employees to change their figures for the better.  Here, you need to imagine large conglomerates, where the highly paid professionals are predominantly male, but the service employees are predominantly female – one solution could be, to outsource your cleaning contracts, so that the gender pay gap appeared to narrow, while simultaneously potentially worsening the employment situation of your lowest-paid female labour force.  Another objection  to gender pay gap reporting might be that a 0% gender pay gap is a kind of totalitarian totem, which signifies little, and rides roughshod over men’s and women’s patterns of employment.

In response, I’d say, yes, the figures are crude, but the very fact that we have them, puts imbalances in the public domain, that were rarely quite so visible before.  The airline defence partly falls down when you  observe variance across the sector: Ryanair’s gender differentials in pay are particularly large, while Easyjet has already noted a problem and has a plan in place to increase the numbers of female pilots on its books; British Airways, on the other hand, does not have a massive gender pay gap by the standards of the sector, as its efforts towards diversity are longer-established, and extend beyond pilots, into engineering and baggage handling and loading roles.  The issue as to why fewer women train for specialist technical jobs requires action in education and expectations, and is one for wider society, not simply employers, to consider.

On the potential outsourcing hurdle, the fact that we now have reporting does mean that gender pay gaps are more transparent, and companies more potentially accountable, because the figures are in the public domain.  What CEO wants to go down as the one who fixed his (and it is usually his)  company’s figures by shuffling women off the books?  After all, it’s been noticed that law firms are not obliged to include partners of firms in their calculations, as they are not employees. As the optics of this exclusion are bad, some firms have published figures with partners included, so that the impact of male dominance at senior levels is more clearly demonstrated.  There are, though, a number of issues related to enforcement of gender pay gap reporting – the EHRC, the body responsible for ensuring that companies do report and are held to account, is poorly resourced and has limited powers to sanction employers.

Finally, on the 0% totem – the fact that there is a relatively small number of companies with gender pay gaps going in favour of women (going ‘past’ 0 if you like) shows that there are scenarios where women can be better paid. A 0% gender pay gap is not some blanket goal, but rather more of a direction of travel indicator, which invites us to think a bit more about what the absence of a gender pay gap might look like, and what the barriers to it may be. As nearly four-fifths of organisations pay men more, we have plenty of time to contemplate these questions.  One pertinent question that arises is what level of gender pay gap is acceptable?  Will gender pay gap reporting mean that deviation from the overall average of reported gender pay gaps, becomes a new benchmark for companies?

And above all of this, the real issue is, why are the figures turning out as skewed towards men as they are?  Two important reasons: one – these are legacy figures, the summation of all the hiring, retention and promotion decisions made over many years up to now.  That was then – let’s plan for a more equal future.

Secondly, all those decisions are the sum of what the numbers in themselves cannot address.  If  we have all these qualified women who are doctors, lawyers, MBA-holding executives, PhDs (and we do, and have had, for decades now) why are they not the senior consultants, law firm partners, ‘C-suite’ office holders, or professors, in near-equal numbers?  And, at least as importantly, why – to name just a few examples –  are the cleaners, care workers, air crew, classroom assistants, secretaries, un-promoted teachers, paid so comparatively badly?  The structural problems of gendered occupational sectors, and poor pay associated with  lack of progression, are crucial to questions of inequality, and unveiled in all their ‘glory’ via gender pay gap reporting.  Public sector organisations – often regarded a good place for professional women to be – have also been shown to have substantial gender pay gaps. For example, the worst performing council on reporting measures has a median gender pay gap of 34%, while 65% of its employees are women.  A range of trade unions, universities and health trusts have also reported gaps well in excess of the average among reporting organisations (median 9.7%).  This raises the question as to what organisations should do to remedy their position.  In public sector organisations, ‘family friendly’ and flexible working options are often available.  What the figures may be indicating is that these options are associated – however subconsciously – with a dearth of career progression: with retention, rather than with promotion, of staff.

It’s not news that caring work is undervalued, whether performed professionally, or outside the workforce, back at home.  In both cases, this work is overwhelmingly done by women.  Until that changes, and until the tendency for ‘feminised’ labour forces to be associated with lower pay is quashed, the gender pay gap is going to persist. Until there’s a will to address the inequalities that stop both men and women balancing childcare, care for relatives, and employment, we’re stuck.  The figures show it. Long ago the Undertones sang ‘You’ve got my number, why don’t you use it?’  On the gender pay gap, we have the numbers, now we need to use them to begin to address all those cultural undertones in the workplace.




Corporate models

24 Jan

Last week’s Presidents Club men-only charity fundraising event has now become notorious, thanks to the undercover reporting of a young female journalist at the Financial Times.  She, along with over 120 other ‘tall, thin, pretty’ women, was hired to be a hostess at a gala evening where all the invitees were men – not just any men, but captains of industry, entertainers and politicians.  The women were asked to wear black high heels and even black underwear, and were given ‘sexy’ outfits of short black dresses and corset-style belts.  The prospective hostesses were all asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement before entering the event.  What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot apparently. The FT journalist reported a sexualised atmosphere.  The women were paraded before the guests before taking their seats, and, unusually, were permitted to drink, during an evening which proceeded to descend into groping and propositions.  Meanwhile, an auction of prizes took place, raising £2 million for children’s charities.  Lots even included one featuring the gift of plastic surgery to add ‘spice’ to your wife, among the more routine offers of executive-friendly luxuries and services.

Quite rightly, the response to these revelations has been outrage, that such blatant sexism still exists in the British establishment.  I share the collective revulsion at the event, but sadly, I’m not that surprised.  If you’ve ever worked in hospitality, you’ll know that women in service are frequently viewed as quasi-public property by clients, and often hired on appearance: from the name badge I had to wear as a student waitress emblazoned ‘here to care for you’, to the egregious spread of ‘Hooters’-style restaurants, it’s pretty clear which sex is paid to please which.  And sleazy overtones are not just the preserve of relatively low-paid service industries.  At corporate conferences and exhibitions the world over, it is quite normal to find companies paying young, well-made-up women to entice delegates to their stalls, or to ‘work’ the networking sessions in order to generate interest in products and services, in their overwhelmingly male audiences.  Think of ‘brand ambassadors’ – how many male ones come to mind outside the world of sport and watches?

Since the FT report came out, charities listed as beneficiaries on the Presidents Club website have been quick to distance themselves from the event.  Great Ormond Street Hospital has gone so far as to say that it will return all donations received from this source.  The charity beneficiaries were not responsible for the nature of the event, nor would they wish to be associated with it. It’s certainly not conventional for charities to host ‘men-only’ events.

However, charities are not immune from wider corporate trends. I remember coming across an agency a while back which offered ‘spokesmodels’ among its services.  What on earth is a ‘spokesmodel’? Well, a brief google search showed that it means a very good-looking woman (sometimes a professional model elsewhere) who can be trained up in the details of your cause and campaigns, and can be employed at events to encourage pledges and donations from invited audiences. The assumption is all too often that the people with money are male, and the people who attract them to think about spending, female.

The whole corporate system still revolves far too much around these unhealthy dynamics.  And the damage is not restricted to the young women fondled at events like the Presidents Club, it seeps into professional life so that women often tend to remain in revenue-generating, not revenue-controlling positions.  The charity sector, like so many others, has a majority of women in its workforce, but a male-dominated executive layer, often accompanied by man-heavy boards of trustees.  So when I heard the about the President Club, I was sad, but not completely surprised.  After all, it’s only a short while ago that the UN appointed a comic book character as an Honorary Ambassador in support of empowerment of women and girls …


%d bloggers like this: