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Women and children second …

10 Jul

I recently wrote about how the government’s recovery strategy for Covid-19 indicated that it had no time for kids.  While pubs and golf courses prepared to open, schools and childcare remained closed to most children, and women were bearing most of the burden of home schooling and baby care.


Since then, Rishi Sunak has delivered his Summer Statement, outlining the state of play in the progressive reopening opening of the economy.  In spite of the widespread recognition that Covid 19 has made gender inequality worse (e.g. here) and that children’s education and wellbeing has been set back during lockdown (e.g. here) the Chancellor’s speech made barely any reference to women or children.  In fact, women were mentioned only to acknowledge that along with young people, and black and minority ethnic groups, they are disproportionately likely to work in hardest-hit sectors such as retail and tourism.  Children got a shout-out as eligible for the ‘EatOuttoHelpOut’ vouchers for restaurants, while the plight of the large fraction of school pupils who are in families using food banks, was not brought up at all.


The children’s sector has found itself low on the government’s priority list since the beginning of the pandemic, and although a group of nearly 150 charities wrote to the government to plead for greater attention the children’s issues,  their voice seems to have gone unheard.  The proposals relating to Universal Credit in Rishi Sunak’s speech, were concerned with increasing resources for coaching to help the unemployed.  The Child Poverty Action Group was one of a number of organisations advocating for uprating of child benefit, and for an end to the 2-child cap, which prevents support for third and subsequent children.  In the current scenario of growing unemployment, and low wages in employment, child benefit will be crucial to many more families, and is currently at a level which makes family life a struggle.  Food banks and voluntary sector bodies do what they can to plug the gaps.  But these proposals, and others in the #ChildrenAttheHeart campaign – which asks for more protection for vulnerable children and more resources for preventive services for children – have been overlooked so far.  This is deeply disappointing for children who have missed out on so much during lockdown.


Meanwhile, the people who have been trying to keep kids’ show on the road are predominantly mothers, many of whom are still juggling working from home with childcare.  Others are furloughed, and at risk of future job losses.  Less than 24 hours after the Chancellor’s statement, John Lewis and Boots, two large high street employers with majority female workforces, announced job cuts.  As administrative workforces begin to move back to offices, it is likely that those working from home – many still unable to access pre-school or after-school care – will often face greater risk of redundancy, than those who can get back into a shared workplace.  There is very likely to be a gender gap in parents’ capacity to make that return, which is why the government’s lack of priority for children’s services means that women find themselves on the sharp end of the economic downturn to come.


It could be that women’s and children’s concerns will rise up the agenda as the Chancellor prepares for Phase 3 of recovery, the re-building phase.  However, there is the risk that by then many more employers will have made cuts or hit the wall, and that the beleaguered childcare sector will be much diminished.  Already women endeavouring to return from maternity leave are finding that they can’t readily secure places in nurseries.  Meanwhile schools’ re-opening remains full of doubts around how learning gaps can be made up, how to respond to possible future local lockdowns, and how to timetable next year’s public exams.   With so much up in the air, families look to the government for reassurance.


And this reassurance might seem more solid, if the measures that were introduced in the Summer Statement were universally well-regarded.  However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) is among those critical of some of the Chancellor’s policies.  The IFS warned that the voucher scheme for restaurants, and VAT cut for hospitality, may be poorly timed – social distancing measures mean that businesses cannot open at capacity, and there is still widespread reluctance to go out while infection rates remain high compared to other countries.  Furthermore, the bonus scheme announced to encourage employers to retain staff once the furlough period ends in October, may simply go to jobs that would have been maintained anyway, rather than offering a major incentive against more lay-offs.  These policies may offer ‘too little, too early’ to transform prospects for the most vulnerable employees, a group where women continue to be over-represented. Let’s hope that Phase 3 is not too late to turn the tide in women’s and children’s favour ….






No time for kids …

22 Jun

There’s a saying that ‘to govern is to choose’, and in making choices, governments show us their priorities.  In the current Covid crisis, there has been little choosing going on, when it comes to children and young people.  Repeatedly, the government has failed to make clear choices about schools and childcare. The recent high-profile U-turn over Free School Meals, a change powerfully advocated for by footballer Marcus Rashford, is only the tip of a rather ignominious iceberg.


Education expert, Laura McInerney, summarised the government’s approach to children in education in England as ‘Schoolswang’. ‘Schoolswang’ is modelled on Mitchell and Webb’s quiz spoof, ‘Numberwang’, where contestants pick random numbers to shout out, until one person is declared the winner – the rules are impenetrable.  ‘Schoolswang’ encompasses the Free School Meals fiasco, but also a continual lack of clarity over whether/which children should return to school.  The government has swung between exhorting schools to open, admitting it can’t be done, and intermittently suggesting that teachers may be part of the problem, when all the while teaching staff have been trying to square the ever decreasing circles of attempting to make schools operate within the government’s own Covid guidelines. Last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time reached nadir, when Boris Johnson began to ask the Leader of the Opposition to say what he was doing to solve the problem – while offering no new leadership on the issue.


On Friday, Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, in a much-trailed speech, offered up new money, to help schools provide catch-up sessions over summer, and extra tuition for disadvantaged children.  But still the questions come – will the money reach schools before the schemes are in place? How will the attainment gap be bridged if more funds aren’t funnelled towards schools in the most disadvantaged areas, or with the highest proportion of disadvantaged children? And so on…


It’s not just schools that have been mired in changing guidance.  The early years sector has struggled to get a hearing at all – I have talked about the delayed decisions over keyworker status here, and discussed longstanding underfunding issues of the sector.  Enter the weekend editorial in the Observer, lamenting the lack of priority given to these issues, and the lack of imagination devoted to children’s and young people’s lives overall, by both government and opposition. The newspaper has come up with a manifesto of suggestions for everyone from pre-schoolers, to school leavers and students.


By taking the bull by the horns, the Observer has shown up a lack of political priority given to children in recent politics.  However, there is a welter of third sector and expert activity in this space, sadly under-used at the moment.  The impact of lockdown on children’s mental health and wellbeing looms large.  The Children’s Commissioner has looked at how the Covid crisis has affected children’s right to education.


But unlike the interests of those running horse racing or golf clubs, or the defenders of the ‘Great British pub’, the children’s and family sector appears to be neglected in the government’s recovery strategy. The voices raising the implications of Covid policies for women’s (impending lack of) employment and experience of inequalities at home, have yet to apparently cut through.  Once more it seems that the Prime Minister’s most valued constituency is a man in the street, who needs to get back to his after-work pint and a bit of sport.


Ella Davis recently wrote in the Guardian about how she got a response from Dominic Cummings and Mary Wakefield, on the issues faced by single parents in lockdown.  Her perspective contributed to the recent implementation of ‘social bubbles’ for single-headed families and one other household.  Single parents have suffered greatly through social isolation and insecurity in the jobs market, and it’s right that this should be addressed.  As Ella Davis herself observes, the example of her campaign points up a certain blindness to the issues faced by lone parents, in routine policymaking.


Taking a wider family policy perspective, in a child-centred view, it’s hard to remain in a situation where many children and grandparents cannot see each other, just as it’s difficult to permit some years to attend school without others; if your view is employment-centred it’s obvious that you need to sort out childcare as well as schools opening, if you want parents to return to work; if it’s women-centred (which it rarely is) you need to be monitoring all these decisions through a gender lens, which, in the current circumstances, indicates job losses in many female-dominated employment sectors, and urgent need for childcare everywhere.  While fathers have been found to be doing more in lockdown, it is still women who bear the brunt of childcare and home-schooling, all the evidence suggests.  Flexible working and parental leave policies are both in need of reform.  Irrespective of family type, most households are under some degree of economic and/or social strain after months of lockdown.


It’s a shame that family policy has been so de-proritised in recent years that many proposals are overlooked.  Enormous credit is due to individual campaigners for affecting change; there is still a whole swathe of interlocking issues around parenting and children and family income which now need dedicated attention. These issues are all the more pressing because there is little parliamentary time left this session – parliament rises on 21st July.  Very little time to make schools policy effective; to deliver coherent policies for university students; only a few weeks to show how nurseries can survive to re-open to give toddlers the social stimulation they need, and to free up parents (especially mothers) to work.  In the light of all this, perhaps it’s no surprise that Boris Johnson is revealing his hands-on fathering credentials this morning – like babies everywhere, his family policy is crying out for a change …






A period of enforced inactivity ….

13 May

The Prime Minister’s speech to the nation at the weekend included a phrase with stuck out for me: he described lockdown as a period of ‘enforced inactivity’  – but I’m not sure that’s really an accurate description of what has been going on in many households.  For people in families, the labour of the household has if anything increased, as more people are around in the house all day, with all the extra meals and cleaning up that that involves.  Add in home-schooling and working from home, and ‘enforced inactivity’ seems a little fanciful… As I quipped on Twitter ‘if your activity was inside and you weren’t paid for it, it didn’t happen’ …


The veil of ‘enforced inactivity’ makes all the work going on inside households to keep the show on the road invisible.  Of course, this work is predominantly done by women for a multitude of economic and cultural reasons.  There are widespread reports that where mothers and fathers are living together under lockdown, women do the majority of childcare and housework, even where both partners are continuing to work from home.  Often this is because the men are higher-paid jobs, which lack flexibility around online meetings, so that women work around their needs, rather than the other way round. There has also been coverage of the situation in academia, where female researchers are ceasing to submit work to academic journals under pressure of childcare, while men have carried on – sometimes even increasing their submission rates – during lockdown.  As journal publication is key to promotion, this is a worrying trend in a sector which is already far from gender-equal. It’s likely that these patterns are also occurring elsewhere.


For the moment, childcare and schools are closed to most – only the children of keyworkers and children who are vulnerable are currently in their usual settings.  On Monday the government’s latest advice to workers began to unravel, as guidance on public transport use and what defined a ‘Covid-secure’ workplace was not immediately available, though Tuesday saw the publication of raft of documents and clarifications.  Issues around childcare were slower to rise up the agenda, with guidance for childminders to open in a limited way published overnight.  The proposals to re-open schools in June only apply to children in certain years for the moment – and it’s still a couple of weeks until then.


So, how can workers reconcile their childcare obligations with employers who may follow the current advice and ‘encourage’ them back to work? This question was put to the PM, and he respondedif people don’t have access to childcare and they have a child who isn’t back in school… then I think that’s only fair to regard that as an obvious barrier to their ability to go back to work. And I am sure employers will agree with that’.  I’m not sure how much time the Prime Minister has spent thinking about this, if he really believes that all employers are always entirely reasonable about granting flexibility for parents.  The 54,000 women laid off  each year during pregnancy and after returning to work may have something to tell him about this. Why does he think there are so many consultancies working with companies to embed flexible working policies? Why does he think there are more women with qualifications than ever, and yet relatively few at senior levels in most sectors?  A pretty major reason is that not all employers are equally persuaded of – or equally skilled at – taking caring responsibilities into account when designing jobs and retaining staff. If childcare is a problem, it is often the employee’s alone to solve. Men find their requests for flexible working turned down more often than women, and fear career damage if they take time out. The culture remains one where family life and domestic labour largely remain invisible while we’re engaged in paid employment.


As if to stress the inconspicuousness of caring work within families further, the latest guidance – to widespread bewilderment – allows for paid cleaners and nannies to begin to return to those households which employ them, but it remains against the rules for family members outside a household to perform such roles. Granted there is concern that grandparents (made vulnerable to the virus by age) should not be exposed to people they don’t live with – but the priority given to economic rather than social relationships rankles with a lot of people.  And of course a good proportion of working parents rely on at least some informal care in order to go to work (a third of parents use informal childcare according to the ONS) – and so will be having to put themselves at the mercy of their employers, should the ‘encouragement’ to return to work come. If Boris Johnson thinks his lockdown modifications are ‘baby steps’ he should at least recognise that someone has to be there to lend babies support.




Is this remotely working?

9 Apr

As the Coronavirus pandemic forces most of us into our homes for the time being, one of the big challenges has been to establish systems for working from home.  The video conferencing website, Zoom, has seen its value rise to the point where it is now apparently 50% higher than all of the US’s airlines put together.  This figure shows how the virus has transformed our working culture and economy.  With many workforce sectors shut down, and lockdowns extending to cover around one third of the world’s population, are we seeing a lasting revolution in employment trends, or simply a bunch of temporary contingencies, likely to spring back to whatever normal looks like, once this phase of response has run its course?


Covid-19 is forcing everyone (including governments) to think about employment and livelihoods anew.  Clearly an important part of this picture is technology – without the internet and social media it would be less feasible to maintain homeworking and social contact during the crisis.  But this highlights existing inequalities  – older people are less likely to be tech-savvy, and pandemic conditions will likely be better for the elderly who have access to the internet and the skills to use it – often the better-off and better-educated. School children – who it is almost taken for granted will keep up with their schooling remotely – will suffer if they have no personal laptop, no space to study or low data allowances.  All of these eventualities occur more in poor families, than in relatively advantaged ones.  Women will bear the burden of childcare and domestic labour in most households because of their weaker position in the labour market, and persistent cultural norms around earning and caring.  The workers we need most now, are increasingly recognised – even in the pages of the FT – as not as the best-paid, but the most socially useful.


One way of assessing the true impact of homeworking is to look at who is able to do it.  It doesn’t take long before evidence emerges to indicate the potential of the Corona crisis to reinforce – rather than to eliminate – existing inequalities.  There’s the question of who is excluded from the capacity to work from home: keyworkers who keep our energy and transport and environmental services running, or who provide personal services and health and social care, that cannot be performed remotely.  It’s telling, that as I blogged previously, the childcare workforce was initially omitted from the UK’s list of keyworkers, a situation which was rapidly rectified, as childcare is needed for other keyworkers.  Overwhelmingly, meanwhile, it is better-paid, office-based professionals who are able to work from home in the face of Covid-19.


While energy, transport and delivery workers are often men, in the care and retail sectors, where many other keyworkers are found, the workforce is often female-dominated. According to the World Health Organisation, 70% of the global health workforce is female, and in the NHS, this rises to 77%, underlining women’s crucial role in fighting Corona virus. School teachers are 70% female – rising to over 80% in primary schools – and are spearheading provision for keyworkers’ children, and the online education for most pupils, which can be provided from home. Care workers, who meet the needs of the elderly and vulnerable in their own homes, have emerged as another vital sector, whose efforts have been sadly undervalued up to now.  Many care workers (mostly women) are still ensuring the welfare of others throughout the pandemic.


Large numbers of workers are now ‘furloughed’ meaning that 80% of their income is supported through the government’s job retention scheme. These people can’t continue to do any work, but are protected from being laid off. Commentary has rightly concentrated on those who fall through the gaps in this wage subsidy package (in short, the self-employed, those in new jobs and people on gig economy/zero hours contracts).  But there are also gender issues in the way furlough is being implemented.  Organisations like Working Families have reported that women were being furloughed on the grounds that they couldn’t both carry on working and look after their children. Fathers are not always subject to the same assumptions, and continue to work from home.  The government has more recently allowed that people who are not available to work because of caring responsibilities, can be furloughed.  This has been welcomed as a source of help for parents; but it may increase gender pay gap issues.  Mothers may well persist in being more likely to be furloughed, and, as they tend to be lower paid than men, they will be more vulnerable to hardship.  Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that young people and women are disproportionately likely to work in the sectors which have been ordered to shut down – e.g. non-food retail, hospitality, personal services.  And employers are not obliged to furlough workers – some made redundancies before the government’s proposals were clear – and furlough is not a guarantee of subsequent employment once the crisis abates.


The charity Maternity Action points out that pregnant women and new parents can potentially lose out under furlough.  The 80% of pay which employers can recover will be calculated on what the employee was earning on 28th February. For those on maternity leave, that is often below normal salary. Employers likely vary in the extent to which they may be willing or able to maintain pay at the higher level. If either furloughed, or temporarily on sick pay, pregnant women could find their earnings reduced to too low a level to qualify for statutory maternity pay once have their baby, or that their maternity pay is lower than anticipated.  This type of anomaly, and the gender differences in how parents may be treated by employers, mean that the government’s support could go further. There could be better support for pregnant workers, and the job retention scheme could be extended to cover people on reduced hours. If parents were able to reduce their hours with a wage subsidy, it could yield more equitable options. The current system can incentivise one parent to be on furlough, and the other to carry on working from home full-time where possible. This pattern tends to disadvantage women, with implications for future earnings and employability.


An interesting article on the Conversation website notes that the Corona crisis presents  options for the future – some encouraging hope and greater equality; others, fear and increasing inequality. The future of employment could reflect one or the other.  Silicon Valley firms offer up connectivity, global delivery, and virtual meetings. They also accrue stratospheric levels of wealth, and potential for increasing surveillance and data mining. Another power imbalance to think about as you log in to work from home…..




Trains, planes, and…childcare

20 Mar

Bridges, tunnels, roads, rail, airports – don’t you just love infrastructure? All the stuff that keeps us going – our government has wanted to be seen to commit to the grand physical projects that will be a central part of the ‘levelling up’ process, and Boris Johnson has been particularly keen to promote this.  But if there’s one thing the current Coronavirus crisis is showing us, it’s that behind the conventional idea of infrastructure, lies another vital world of support: the childcare and education workforce (predominantly female) that enables health workers, food distributors – and basically all of us with children – to get to work.  And it is schools and nurseries that often fill the gaps experienced by the most vulnerable among us: free meals, a place of safety, for the children with the least support at home.

Imagine childcare workers’ surprise, then, to learn that the business rates holiday provided for key sectors of the labour force, was announced, at first, without including nurseries as among its beneficiaries.  The Early Years Alliance (the largest representative organisation for the pre-school  sector in the UK)  declared itself ‘disappointed and frustrated’ at this omission – which was later reversed by Rishi Sunak.  He announced that there would also be ‘zero business rates for 12 months for all private childcare providers’ in a new statement on 19th March.  Welcoming this rectification, the Early Years Alliance also pointed out that childminders would not benefit from it.  This situation exposes both the diversity of the childcare sector, and a lack of immediate priority on the part of the government.  There is now a scramble to support parents who still have to turn up to work in our extraordinary times – especially those on the frontline of the health service and food supplies. It is not satisfactory for childcare to be an afterthought.  It may be that the initial confusion could have been allayed by greater diversity in the ‘war cabinet’ at the heart of government’s Coronavirus response. As BBC Women’s Hour discussed today, all of the ministers in this group are men, and often men who are sufficiently wealthy to afford in-home help with any childcare needs. With a more representative group at the table, the childcare and early years sector, as used by most parents, may have been better appreciated from the start.

I’ve written before about childcare as a key web of support underlying our more conventional ideas of infrastructure – childcare services support parental employment and are an important factor in enabling parents (especially fathers) to commute longer distances to work.  And I’ve also written about the longstanding underfunding of the early years sector.  The government has pledged to continue funding the 30 hours free childcare available to 2-4 year olds with employed parents, but this money does not cover nurseries’ costs, and without the fees for additional hours coming in from parents, it is hard to see it as a complete solution to the issues presented by temporary shutdown of the sector.  Meanwhile, it was also unclear to begin with, precisely who was defined as a ‘keyworker’ in the government’s definition of occupations entitled to continuing school and early years provision.  This presented a headache for providers trying to work out how to plan remaining open.  There was also uncertainty around who exactly in the childcare workforce was considered a keyworker themselves.   The government has now clarified that childcare workers – including childminders – are considered keyworkers, and therefore part of a vital infrastructure of support.  Tell parents something they didn’t know….


*UPDATE: As I was writing, the government announced a major package of support for the workforce. All employers – including charities who figure widely in childcare provision – will be able to take advantage of this support to retain employees during closure. It will take a little time to get off the ground. However, childminders are usually self-employed and therefore will receive less generous support from government measures*



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.



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