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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 …






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…..




Back to the future on Select Committees?

28 Feb

Back in 2015, I wrote a blog about the composition of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, asking whether it mattered that there was only one man sitting on it, and noting the lack of experienced MPs in it.  As the members of Select Committees for this parliament have now been  announced  – after a longer than usual delay following the 2019 election – the same questions have come around again.

Once again, the Women and Equalities Committee finds itself including only one man – a newcomer in parliament, the Conservative MP for Darlington, Peter Gibson – and with an abundance of other novices among its membership.  Apart from the Chair, Caroline Nokes, only two members were  elected before 2019.  Arguably, the presence of a lot of new, relatively young MPs – several of them women under 35 – represents a burst of vitality in this policy area. But as I discussed in 2015, there’s potentially an issue if Women and Equalities issues aren’t taken up enthusiastically by senior MPs, most of whom remain older men.

Caroline Nokes is one of only 8 women amongst this session’s Select Committee Chairs.  The small number of women in these influential positions may at first seem surprising, in a parliament with more female MPs than ever; but as I have written before, it is also a reflection of the fact that the Conservatives have won a  large majority in parliament with relatively few female representatives (around a quarter of Tory MPs are women, compared to nearly half of Labour MPs).

Other Select Committees present a mixed picture in terms of gender and representation.  Historically, economic affairs, defence and foreign relations have been male-dominated.  As has often been the case in the past, Health and Social Care, and Education, are among the committees with the highest proportion of women in their membership.  In economics, the current membership of the Treasury Select Committee is unusual in consisting of 8 women and 2 men.  However, the committee for the Department of International Trade – a crucial area as the UK forges new relationships with the EU and other countries – has no female members at all.  The Defence and Foreign Affairs Select Committees remain true to form, with 3 women sitting between the two of them, while the European Scrutiny Select Committee is three-quarters male.  Away from the economy and Brexit, climate change and the environment are now high priorities, and women make up about a third of members, on each of the Environmental Audit and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committees.

We still have some way to go before female MPs (34% of all MPs) are well-represented across all Select Committees, doing the work of holding government to account.  And there have been some signs that scrutiny is not a priority for this government.  Boris Johnson has previously avoided appearing before the Liaison Committee, and City AM reported that Number 10 was considering going against the convention of having the Chair elected by members of that Committee.  The Liaison Committee is the one with the power to call the Prime Minister to give evidence.  Apparently, there may be moves to anoint a preferred candidate as Chair. Select Committees have rarely been so interesting…




Chairs at the table: women in Select Committee elections

30 Jan

In the midst of coverage of the UK’s MEPs departing from the European parliament, as the scene is set for leaving the EU tomorrow, it would have been easy to overlook some important developments back in Westminster yesterday. MPs voted to elect Chairs of Select Committees in the House of Commons.  Select Committees are a key part of holding governments to account, as they scrutinise departmental business, and the procedures of parliament themselves.  Governments are obliged to respond to Select Committee recommendations, which they make based on reports including evidence from expert witnesses to Committee hearings.


After every General Election (so pretty often lately) Select Committees are reformed, with Chairs divided between the political parties, according to parties’ share of the vote.  As the 2019 election changed the political landscape dramatically, its impact has been felt in the distribution of Chairs between Conservative and Labour.  In the 2017 parliament, the Conservatives held 13 Chairs, and Labour 12, but following Conservative gains under Boris Johnson, this has shifted to 16 committees being overseen by Conservatives, and 10 by Labour MPs.  The SNP have retained their two Chairmanships – Scotland and International Trade, while the Lib Dems lost Science and Technology to the Tories. The Institute for Government has a full summary of who stood for election to the Chair positions here.


However, it is not just the party arithmetic in Select Committees that has changed as a result of the 2019 General Election.  The gender balance has too – and not necessarily in a progressive direction.  Although the election resulted in the highest proportion of women ever elected to parliament (220 out 650 MPs, or 34% of the total) the proportion of women elected in each political party varies radically.  While 48% of Labour MPs are women, three-quarters of Conservatives are men.  In the SNP and Liberal Democrats, male MPs outnumber females by roughly 2:1.  This means that the pool from which Select Committee Chairs are chosen in this parliament, skews male.  Moreover, these posts have become high-status, and a way for experienced backbenchers to carve out a prominent and authoritative position for themselves, outside of becoming a government minister.  I wrote in autumn about the issue of women leaving parliament in relatively high numbers, especially on the Conservative side.  This means that there are more novices among Tory women in parliament than may otherwise have been the case, reducing the numbers of Conservative women likely to stand for Chairmanships considerably.


I have also written before about the tendency for Select Committee Chairs and members to sort themselves on gender lines according to status and perceptions of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ political topics.  Foreign Affairs and Defence are historically male-dominated, while Education and Health are more likely to be evenly mixed.  In yesterday’s elections of Chairs, only 15 Committees out of 28 ended up in contention, as incumbents remained unopposed in 11 cases, and 2 Chairs were elected unopposed (Steve Crabb for Wales and Caroline Nokes for Women and Equalities, both Conservative MPs).  Elsewhere, there were two Committees, International Development and Petitions, where only female (Labour) candidates stood, and a further 6 where both male and female MPs were candidates.  In the remaining seven contested Chairs, only male candidates were on offer.  In all, only one Conservative, and one Labour, woman, was elected Chair where they stood against men. Of the 28 Select Committees where Chairs can be elected, only 8 have a woman in the Chairman post (28%).


These results may be an early warning concerning female representation in this parliament.  Boris Johnson was rumoured to have plans to reduce the number of government departments, and therefore the number of corresponding Select Committees.  The (male-dominated) Department for Exiting the EU will go, and the freestanding department of International Development has apparently escaped the axe.  It’s now said that the Prime Minister wants to focus on departmental performance, rather than changing the composition of government departments.  For the moment it is impossible to know exactly what changes the Prime Minister has in mind in advance of his re-shuffle next month; but the chances for women to attain positions of power in parliament can go down as well as up.




Think of a Leader …

21 Jan

It’s Davos time again – for the 50th time, world leaders, CEOs and assorted luminaries will meet in the Swiss Alps to thrash out the world’s problems.  Peak elite, you might say – or as FT journalist Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson neatly put it, there’s a reputation for ‘high altitude pontificating’ …

This year the conference theme is ‘stakeholders for a cohesive and sustainable world’ – a step away from the unbridled global capitalism, more favoured in previous agendas.  Climate change is top of global concerns, and the World Economic Forum (WEF), the organisation which runs the Davos conference, has been keen to publicise environmentally-conscious aspects of the meeting.  Delegates have been encouraged to travel by train, and if they have to use private jets (the notorious mode of transport for Davos man) they can buy a special fuel onsite which reduces omissions.  There is a day devoted to vegetarian menus and alternative proteins, and attendees can glide across floors featuring carpets made from recycled fishnets.

So just who are these people who gather annually to chew over the world’s problems?  I’ve written before about Davos’s women problem, which means that despite WEF’s work to calculate the Global Gender Gap and to promote women in business, delegates remain overwhelmingly male. WEF has pledged to double the number of women at Davos by 2030, and are working in a range of countries to accelerate measures to reduce the gender gap. This year women make up 24% of attendees – depressingly the highest proportion to date – and a number which WEF defends by pointing out that it is higher than the proportion of women in ministerial positions worldwide (21%), and a lot higher than the  percentage of women in CEO posts in major companies – which currently stands at an abysmal 6% of the Fortune 500 list.  This is an uneasy argument, given that the Davos crowd is skewed towards Europe, where the political balance is often better, and that one third of delegates are drawn from civil society. The appearance of Greta Thunberg and 10 further teenage ‘Changemakers’ will probably not reduce the average age (around 50) of conference-goers much – nor will it address the dearth of older women present, in spite of high-profile speakers such as Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde.

Indeed in a venue for ‘thought leaders’ it’s fitting that an organisation – Women Political Leaders – is launching a report on the ‘Reykjavik Index for Leadership’ which illustrates how open people are to women occupying leadership positions.  They find that in G7 countries (Canada, France, USA, UK, Germany, Italy, Japan) only a minority of people (46%) feel very comfortable with the idea of a woman as head of government, and only 48% feel similarly about women as CEOs of major companies.  The index, which records views on women’s leadership across a range of sectors, is in its second year, and the UK is in a lower overall position this year than last, with men’s perceptions of women in leadership having declined notably. Not an encouraging sign for future gender parity.  The best-performing countries are France and Canada, with Germany and Italy lowest in the G7.  A second group of nations, containing Brazil, Russia, India and China, shows Russia and China lagging far behind the others. The index also looks at whether people are comfortable with male leaders in the childcare sector, and finds that, in the G7, it’s the sector least likely to be seen as equally suited to both men and women.  Scores are particularly low in Japan (where a government minister recently caused a stir by taking paternity leave) and also in China, where perceptions of childcare as a woman’s activity remain particularly strong.


Meanwhile, among the civil society organisations attending Davos, Oxfam has launched its annual report on inequality, timed to be part of the conference debates.  This year they have looked at global inequality in terms of gender and the share of unpaid labour.  They find that the 22 richest men in the world have greater wealth then all the women in Africa taken together.  This statistic is underpinned by the fact that women do three-quarters of all unpaid care work across the world.  These inequalities between the sexes will only be exacerbated by climate change (making chores like fetching water more arduous) and ageing populations (resulting in women spending more time on elder care).  To make a more gender-equal society, therefore, the perceptions revealed in the Reykjavik Index, will need to shift towards acceptance of men in caring roles, alongside women in leadership. Perhaps the most pertinent question at Davos should be ‘Where’s the creche?’ ….




Family Fortunes: What’s on offer in GE2019?

25 Nov

With the publication of the Conservative manifesto, we now have documents from all the main parties outlining their proposals for government, following the General Election next month.  True to the wonk in Wonklifebalance, I have looked at them all to see what they are offering in the way of childcare and parental leave policies.  The fact that each of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have proposed measures in these areas, indicates that parents of young children, and working mothers in particular, are a part of the electorate they wish to address directly.  Against a background of stagnating wages, and with women less likely to report that they have decided who they will vote for, this comes as little surprise… As Sarah Ronan pointed out in the Independent recently, working mothers are at least as important a group to cultivate for success in this election, as ‘Workington man’ – and they are fed up of having their priorities overlooked.


What promises await voters seeking relief from the diet of stretched wages, expensive childcare and work-life out-of-balance?  Well, while childcare provision gets a makeover across the political spectrum, there’s actually pretty slim pickings regarding reform of our ailing parental leave system.  Perhaps the Conservatives are simply waiting for the results of their consultation on this issue, which is rather mistimed electorally, as the deadline for submissions falls on Friday.  Consultations on neo-natal leave and flexible working closed in October, and the manifesto says that the Tories will now offer neo-natal leave.  They will also ‘encourage’ flexible working and aim to make it ‘easier for men to take paternity leave’ – er, that’s pretty much it. Apart from beefing up legislation to outlaw maternity discrimination, there is no positive offer on parental leave, shared or otherwise.


Both Labour and the Lib Dems do a bit about parental leave, but choose not to address the big issue of reforming shared parental leave. Labour has extended the option of shared parental leave to self-employed people as part of their Charter for the Arts.  But there are no dedicated quotas of parental leave for fathers, even though these are widely viewed as a major component in closing the gender gap for working parents.  Bizarrely, the Labour party has opted to extend paid maternity leave to 12 months; while this leave can be transferred to men if mothers wish to do so, this move risks making our unequal system even more unequal, by giving more months to mothers at relatively low rates of wage replacement.  Doubling paternity leave to 4 weeks, while welcome, does little to revolutionise traditional patterns of leave-taking.  Similarly, the Liberal Democrats propose tripling paternity leave to 6 weeks, but without proposals related to wider parental leave.


Meanwhile, in childcare it’s bonanza time – if by bonanza you mean coming up with ideas to show that the inadequacies of the current system have registered, while being a bit more vague on implementation.  As regular readers know, 30 hours free childcare really is quite complicated to provide.  All three parties recognise that this as a major concern, and they are competing to improve on the current patchy and under-funded system. That they have all put money on the table, is some recognition of the precariousness of today’s services.


Most ambitious is Labour, looking to reverse the cuts to Sure Start Children’s Centres throughout the country, and to create a new Sure Start Plus network, with provision for under-2s.  This offer would aspire to provide 30 hours free childcare for all 2-4 year olds within five years, as well as new care for children between 1 and 2 years old.  Labour would invest in a graduate workforce and recruit 150,000 Early Years staff.  They would also subsidise additional hours of childcare, above the 30 hours per week, on a sliding scale according to income. The price tag of around £4.5 billion indicates the step change these proposals would represent, with costs in part recouped via increased participation of women in workforce.


The Conservatives concentrate more on the enabling role of wraparound childcare in England, to facilitate employment.  Focussing on after-school and holiday provision, they propose a £1 billion investment, comprising £250 million per year for three years, to boost school provision of out-of-hours services.  This could mean supporting voluntary sector providers too.  A further £250 million will cover capital costs where schools need new staff or equipment to establish wraparound services.  There is no mention of additional support for under-2s.  The aim is for 250,000 additional children to have on-site summer childcare in primary school.  As such, this is clearly a more modest proposal than Labour’s.


Over with the Liberal Democrats, Children’s Centres receive £1 billion funding. Responding to the need to plug the childcare gap between the end of maternity leave and eligibility for free hours at age 2, they will also give working parents of children aged 9 months to 2 years an entitlement of 35 hours free childcare for 48 weeks of the year.  Like Labour, they want to increase the proportion of Early Years staff with qualifications, and they will triple the Early Years Pupil Premium to help the most disadvantaged children.  They will also roll out the Baby box programme (which has been established in Scotland) more widely.  This scheme gives new parents a box containing basic clothing, a thermometer and books for their newborn.


Parents undoubtedly find themselves in the spotlight this election, with all parties recognising that they need to offer something more.  There is enthusiasm for Early Years services as helping to narrow the gaps in opportunities between the most and least advantaged children. However, ensuring that major investment is rolled out effectively, and that staff are in place to fulfil our leaders’ ambitions, will be far from child’s play ….



So they’re leaving ….

31 Oct

It seems fitting that Hallowe’en marks the season of remembrance of the departed, as much earthly commentary is currently taken up with the exit of MPs from parliament, in advance of the impending election.  Top of the list of concerns is that women may be leaving in disproportionate numbers, and that high levels of abuse directed at them, may be behind this trend.


What are the numbers actually revealing?  In a rapidly changing landscape, it’s hard to keep up, but I am using the figures provided by Gavin Freeguard of the Institute of Government to keep track.  As of this afternoon, 58 members were leaving – a tally that even includes one MP’s decision to stand again, having previously brought the number exiting to 59.  Everyone has noted ‘volatility’ in our politics, and this seems to extend even into decisions to stand down or not.


As soon as MPs’ announcements of intention to leave the Commons began to come in, there was comment on the loss of women, and query as to whether the figures were unusual.  At the raw level, the figure of 58 is not high, compared with the 90 who left parliament in 2015, and other even higher figures in the past.  In terms of proportionality, women make up just under a third of MPs leaving, a fraction in tune with the proportion of women in parliament overall. This apparent match in numbers has led some to say that any reference to gender is unnecessary.  However, as women have grown in numbers in parliament comparatively recently, the proportion leaving would be expected to be below the proportion sitting, as women are more likely to be recent entrants, at earlier points in their political careers.


Sunder Katwala, of British Future, has outlined in a more detailed analysis on Twitter, that there are some differences between the type of women and the type of men who bringing their political careers to an end.   Broadly speaking, the men leaving are what you might call the ‘usual suspects’, politicians with several elections behind them, and of ages in line with conventional retirement.  Amongst the women, duration served is lower on departure, and more of them are relatively young.  This trend is particularly true of Conservative women.  The average age of Tory women standing down is 51, compared to 64 among Conservative men and 67 for Labour women.  This points to distinctive issues in the Conservative party, where women have arrived in numbers even more recently than is the case for Labour, and whose current leader is associated with ‘woman problems’.


The more you look at the figures, the more it becomes clear that they cannot by themselves tell us what the reasons behind MPs’ standing down might be.  As we’re about to face our third election in 4 years, our attention has been captured by parliamentary minutiae – as Brexit has challenged ‘business as usual’ in politics, there is more focus on how politicians are behaving and assessing its significance; who was leaving parliament at the end of a session would often barely register in ‘normal’ times.


Current political divisions have led to many pointing to the ‘toxic’ nature of debate, and MPs have often been subject to high levels of abuse.  It has been shown in a range of studies that women and people of colour in public life, experience higher levels of online abuse than white men – Diane Abbott has been the target of sustained abuse at a level far beyond other MPs.  The mention of the toll of such a climate in the parting statements of Heidi Allen and Nicky Morgan, and more widely, is a concerning development.  Male MPs have not referred to this in their reasons for departure.  Parliament itself has also been called to account for bullying and harassment in its culture.  All of this background provides ample potential reason for people to wish to depart. The observations that some are leaving because they are out of favour with party leadership, or out of step with their constituents’ views on Brexit, or have slim majorities they are unlikely to sustain, have come thick and fast.  In a polarised political atmosphere, it has been open season for exit to be pursued by critics’ confirmation bias …


In all this, it is not clear that we can discount gender as a factor.  Parliament remains a male-dominated institution, where women are in a minority and often in more junior positions.  When they do reach prominence or high office, they remain subject to sexism both in the chamber (‘calm down dear’; ’humbug’) and in the media (remember ‘Legs-it’?).   When abuse comes women’s way, it is against a backdrop of sexism, and a struggle to be taken seriously, something that is not experienced in the same way by men.  It may be that the female MPs leaving parliament mid-career are signalling that the benefits of a life a politics are still less likely to outweigh the costs, if you a woman.





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. 


Why they’re always in the kitchen for political parties…

15 May

You may have had enough of James ‘two ovens’ Brokenshire by now, but bear with me a moment, as I look at why the kitchen is such a ubiquitous backdrop for political ambition.

The thing about kitchens is that they are everyday places – we all have to use one, to store provisions and to feed ourselves.  So, at a level, they are utilitarian and universal. This is why politicians might wish to be seen in them – to show that they too are ordinary people, to be in PR-speak, ‘relatable’.  What could be more normal than washing the dishes? Kitchens are places of domestic economy – where food is prepared and distributed, so that politicians in kitchens can give a nod towards good housekeeping and responsible budgeting, and have wholesome associations with healthy nutrition for families. 

So far, so appealing.  But now we get to the ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ bit, currently being ‘enjoyed’ by Messrs Brokenshire and Raab, both recently seen in interviews down home with their wives, in – where else? – the kitchen.  For as well as being sites of mundane labour, kitchens are powerful signifiers of social class and status.  Mr Brokenshire’s four ovens may seem like a simple preference for the kind of people who re-fit their kitchens when they move house or build extensions, but these types of choices look very different to people whose kitchens are more Royle Family than royal family. In the UK, the links been kitchens and social class are so well-understood that there are ‘Smug’ fridges in Aardman animations – the gadgets and brands in our kitchens are a perfect social shorthand.  It’s no coincidence that about a third of the 16 items recently deemed to make you middle-class in Britain, were things that are kitchen-related.  One of these, the barbeque, features prominently in Dominic Raab’s framed word cloud decoration, which probably has an advisor now banging their head on a zinc counter somewhere ….


As well as signalling social class, kitchens provide a gender minefield.  Male politicians like David Cameron (remember webcameron?) like to be seen there to enact not just ordinary bloke-ishness, but also modern fatherhood.  Cameron doled out kids’ breakfast or stacked the dishwasher while discussing his vision for the future.  For women, it’s a double-edged sword to be seen in the kitchen.  As the first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher used it both to soften her image, cooking for Dennis on the morning of the election, and to show her science credentials, in a BBC2 programme.  Nicola Sturgeon gave an interview in hers in 2015, confessing that she spent little time there – too busy being an effective leader to be in there much.  And she has a point, as the first cry of the sceptic watching women in powerful positions, is to suggest that they get ‘back to the kitchen’, where women belong in their domestic roles.  


Across the pond, kitchen skills have often caused controversy for first ladies: while many were happy to be depicted baking cookies for the nation, Hillary Clinton famously fell foul of public opinion by declaring that she had preferred her profession to homebaking.  Although Michelle Obama was happy to plant a vegetable garden and advocate healthy eating, she distanced herself from any great culinary expertise.  President Obama, meanwhile, was photographed at that temple of masculine cuisine: the barbeque.  In terms of kitchens themselves, American presidents arguably have it easier in terms of public perceptions, as the White House kitchen is famous as a backdrop in its own right, teeming with professional staff to cater for all occasions.  This fact, along with the privileges of gender, make skits like the Onion’s, showing Obama mocked-up in the White House kitchen attempting to cater for a Chinese delegation, work. More recently Trump pitched himself as the gold-plated everyman, laying on a McDonald’s ‘banquet’ when the White House kitchen was out of service.  No scratch cooking for this man’s man.


A final reason why politicians should tread warily in the kitchen is that they have become venues of studied informality.  As Amanda Craig wrote when David Cameron was caught up in the ‘kitchen suppers’ controversy, where the likes of Rebekah Brooks joined him for casual meals in the Cotswolds, the loss of dining rooms from domestic architecture means that kitchens are now intimate spaces where people can relax.  Many cook performatively in view of guests – the performance aspects appealing particularly to the modern hands-on man. And once the cooking is done, everyone dines together in the same warm space. This intimacy is why kitchens are associated with close circles –  ‘kitchen cabinet’ is used to describe leaders’ most trusted allies; and it also why ‘kitchen table’ politics is a phrase used for down-to-earth conversations between representatives and the public.  As Labours’ notorious pink bus campaign for attracting women voters showed, the image of the kitchen table has to be used with care, or it ends up entangled with all that gender and class symbolism once more.

The intimacy of kitchens means that the kitchen interview or photo shoot can lead to journalists getting politicians to reveal more than might have been the case otherwise.  Think of Ed ‘two kitchens’ Miliband, or David Cameron (again!) revealing that he wouldn’t run for a third term while making salad with James Landale.  Modern, intimate kitchens allow us to display some personality, which is perhaps why the current Prime Minister has found any steer towards them fraught.  When not extolling the virtues of mouldy jam to a divided nation, Theresa May has been known to express pride in her extensive collection of cookbooks, inspiring the amazing revelation that cookery is enjoyable ‘because you get to eat it as well as make it’ –  about as robotic a response as you could hope for.  As John Donne didn’t say, ‘No kitchen island is entire of itself’, and politicians would do well to remember that, as they throw open the doors of their homes to greet us …




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