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The other leave vote ….

7 Jan

Amid our current political turmoil, a vote concerning leave has largely escaped major attention.  With collective energy absorbed in the consequences of the vote to Leave the EU, a cross-party delegation of MPs will shortly be meeting with the Speaker to urge him to introduce a system of ‘baby leave’.  This will enable pregnant women MPs, and new mothers and fathers, to vote in parliament by proxy.  Following a debate last February, plans for proxy voting – which would allow new parents to nominate a colleague to vote on their behalf – were approved, but have since failed to be implemented.  In spite of high-profile support for the measures, including from ‘mother of the House’, Harriet Harman, and the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, progress has ground to a halt.


This may not seem like the most pressing issue to stressed politicos contemplating Brexit, but the baby leave system (or current lack of it) could come into sharper relief in the tense months ahead, as there are currently 4 pregnant MPs, and they will wish for their voices to be heard in the crucial votes deciding Britain’s future, which will dominate this parliamentary session and beyond.  Moreover, for those with concerns that leaving the EU may diminish workers’ rights to entitlements including maternity and parental leave, it sends a bad signal to see our political representatives lagging behind much of the rest of the workforce, with no official leave system, at such a critical time in politics.  In this context, it is not surprising that the women’s caucus in parliament is advocating that the system be subject to a trial,  beginning as soon as 1st February, when a short number of weeks remain before the exit date for leaving the EU, on 29th March.


Quite apart from Brexit, it is striking that the British parliament has moved so slowly on this issue.  In the February debate on baby leave, Tulip Siddiq pointed out that Swedish, Danish and Slovenian representatives in parliament are entitled to up to 12 months of parental leave, as are those in Finland, Estonia and Latvia.  In other countries such as Belgium, Portugal, Croatia and the Netherlands, the maternity leave system is not formal, but members can be replaced by a political colleague while taking leave. In Israel, there is 12 weeks of parental leave available to both mothers and fathers.  The Czech Republic has also recently introduced a system of parental leave for parliamentarians, and Iceland, a world-leader in gender-equal parental leave, also allows proxy voting.  In Australia, proxy voting is available to nursing mothers.  So the international precedent is there. Britain shares a lack of formal leave system with the European Parliament, and a video of the Swedish MEP Jytte Guteland, bringing her baby into that chamber to vote, went viral.  She has spoken in favour of making parliaments more family-friendly, which is a significant element in global initiatives to make parliaments and political life more open to women and more gender-sensitive.


Back in Britain, the lack of proxy voting also raises the question of regional inequalities.  If the only way to vote is to bring your baby with you to Westminster, it is clearly more difficult if you commute from constituencies in, for example, the far North or West of England or Scotland. At a time when it is vital that all the UK’s voices are heard, the other leave vote matters.





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.




Working models

22 Jul


I’d been mulling over work-life balance issues, and the persistent question of gender equality in the tech workforce, when I read Alexis Ohanian’s open letter in The Hill, about the value of parental leave. He has established a system at Reddit, where employees are entitled to 16 weeks parental leave on the birth of a child. Crucially, he has taken his own full leave entitlement in the last year, after he and Serena Williams had their first child.

I’ve written before about the issues raised by the amount of parental leave taken by tech CEOs.  In the cases of Marissa Meyer or Mark Zuckerberg, the practice of modelling a culture where both men and women would be encouraged to take leave in the future, fell short.  In Meyer’s case, this was because she took ultra-short leave herself, and arranged to have her children accommodated alongside her office at work, while simultaneously banning homeworking for employees; in Zuckerberg’s case,  because he took only half of the full leave entitlement available to the wider workforce at Facebook. So hats off to Ohanian, for at least taking up his full leave entitlement, and not consigning it to the ‘for the juniors’ pile.

I’ve also been reading about the Conservative Chief Whip in the House of Commons, Julian Smith, who has been in hot water over pairing arrangements, in relation to close votes on Brexit last week.  ‘Pairing’ allows MPs from opposing parties to cancel out each other’s vote, if one of them cannot attend parliament. If one of the pair is absent, the other agrees not to vote, so as to maintain the balance of voting behaviour across the House.  This procedure has now become bound up with the lack of formal parental leave for MPs.  Pairing arrangements are vital during the period following birth, when women are on maternity leave, or when men are taking paternity or parental leave.  Last week, on crucial Brexit votes, Brandon Lewis defied his pairing arrangement with Jo Swinson (the Lib Dem’s deputy leader, who has recently had her second child), by voting all the same.  Julian Smith has claimed that this was an error, while rumours have it, that breaches of pairing may have been encouraged. Breakdown of the pairing system is a problem, not just because of the breach of trust and its implications for high politics, but also because of the way it rides roughshod over the rights of working parents to take leave, and not to be discriminated against for breaks in their working history.  Members of parliament should be setting an example of fairness on this issue, as they legislate for the rights of others.

My thinking about model employers was nudged further by news that a New Zealand firm has experimented with giving its employees a 4-day week on full pay – and has followed up on the results of a trial. Encouragingly, the New Zealanders found that their employees were more satisfied and less stressed during 4-day weeks. Employees had been consulted about how to implement the policy, and had contributed to ideas for increasing efficiency, including automation of some routine tasks.  The trial has been pronounced a huge success, with productivity rising by an estimated 20%. How much of employees’ greater satisfaction can be attributed to their extra day of leisure, and how much to the improvement in quality of their jobs through automation of the repetitive aspects of work, is perhaps worthy of further investigation. Gaby Hinsliff has written about the ‘smart’ use of tech, which can free  people up to do the most fulfilling parts of their job, and to allow more flexibility in when and how it is done.  Technology will have a role in the design of jobs in future, possibly leading to fewer hours of better quality work for greater numbers of people.  But the jury is still out, and there are plenty more dystopian views of how automation may affect the workforce – it’s a subject I might return to another time.

The idea of more equal distribution of work throughout society, brings us back full circle to the example set by men taking parental leave.  Fairness at work can not dodge questions of structural inequalities. Ohanian makes the point that the bar for men is set very low, in terms of expectations around their involvement in care of their children.  Women, meanwhile, face pressure to excel both in parenthood, and at work, in unsupportive systems (in the US, the lack of formal maternity leave for many, means that mothers often return to work only two weeks after childbirth).  Perhaps it helps men to contemplate taking leave when both partners in a couple have equivalent status and salaries, so that it is harder to justify defaulting to the traditional  breadwinner/homemaker models, where men carry on earning the same or more, and women step back from the workforce. Ohanian’s career success is more than matched by that of his wife, Serena Williams.

It remains the case that flexible working arrangements are more likely to be offered to those in higher status jobs, while people in frontline services or on production lines, must show up for all the hours available to them.  Those in service industries and care work – often low-paid, and often female – are unlikely to be able to access 4-day weeks on 5-days’ pay.  But perhaps their employers are missing a trick: since their employees are humans, in jobs requiring communication and empathy, they are amongst the ones most likely to benefit from a New Zealand-style 4 day week which could help prevent burn-out. They are not likely to be replaced by robots anytime soon.  Imagine how much we would all benefit if productivity in service sectors and social care, rose by 20% …. Imagine  if our idea of the model worker deviated more from that of a man in the office, with a wife who does most of the caring work…




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.



Springing into action on Shared Parental Leave?

20 Mar

Today marks the vernal equinox in the Northern hemisphere, the official start of Spring, and the day when we experience almost exactly equal amounts of daylight and night time.  What better time to consider the balance between the sexes in terms of earning and caring work, and gender equality in general?

Appropriately, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee have published their Fathers and the Workplace report, making recommendations concerning paternity leave, flexible working, workplace culture and the much-discussed – and often criticised –  Shared Parental Leave, which was first made available to parents almost exactly three years ago, in 2015.

Shared Parental Leave was introduced in order to better meet the aspirations of new generations of mothers and fathers, who wish to share employment and childcare responsibilities more equally, avoiding the traditional default of breadwinner fathers and mothers as parents-in-chief.  As dual-earner families have grown in numbers, and younger men and women report more egalitarian attitudes regarding paid work and parenting, this all seems to make good sense.

However, the particular system of Shared Parental Leave that was introduced in the UK has done little to shift the dial in practice, in terms of who does what.  It does not come with a realistic level of wage replacement, nor does it represent a means whereby fathers have their own entitlement to parental leave; rather it is a method for women to transfer leave to their partners during the first year of their child’s lives, after they have used up the initial weeks of non-transferable maternity leave. The government estimated that the policy would be taken up by 2-8% of parents, and evidence collected since, suggests that even this figure may have been optimistic.  As the Committee’s report sums up: ‘The Government’s objective is for mothers and fathers to share the task of caring for their children more equally. The current shared parental leave policy will not achieve this on a large scale, as the Government’s own estimates of take-up show’.

In order to address the low take-up issue, the Government has embarked on a new campaign, ‘share the joy‘ which publicises Shared Parental Leave, showing couples who have used it, talking up the benefits of both parents being able to work and to take leave during their baby’s first year.  But without higher levels of pay for Shared Parental Leave, it is hard to see how raising awareness will increase the attractiveness of the package.  And while, of course, caring for babies and children can often be joyful and rewarding, what many parents are looking for is a policy which will enable then to share the load of meals, laundry, appointments as well as the joys of parenting.  As today’s report says, ‘[the] campaign to promote shared parental leave is welcome, but does not constitute a plan of action for achieving wider societal change.

If we’ve learnt anything from other countries, it is that getting to that point takes time.  The ‘latte papas’, the much-vaunted buggy pushers of Sweden’s urban landscape, only reached a critical mass because of decades of policy tweaking. Sweden first changed the law regarding leave in 1974, when maternity leave was changed to parental leave, for which both mothers and fathers were eligible.  However, there was an option for men to sign over their parental leave to their partners – in 1994 it was discovered that most did so, meaning that only 10% of parental leave days were actually used by men.  In order to attain the gender equality envisaged by the original policy, the government introduced a ‘daddy quota’ of 30 days leave in 1994.  If fathers didn’t use this quota, the month of leave was lost from the couple’s total entitlement.  This policy had immediate impact on fathers’ participation in early parenting, and dedicated leave for fathers spread as a policy throughout Scandinavia.  In the intervening years, the amount of leave for men has been increased repeatedly, and the Nordic countries regularly top international indices measuring both gender equality and happiness, or life satisfaction (incidentally, today is also the International Day of Happiness, and the Finns top the UN’s index this year).

At the end of last year the Telegraph reported that the Swedish government was looking to increase their ‘daddy quota’ to 5 months, to further enhance gender equality.  Perhaps a test of how embedded such policies have become, is that in the early days of parental leave in Sweden, sceptics complained that men just used their days to go elk hunting;  now in the West of Sweden where an elk hunting week is an annual tradition, they are looking change the rules for subsidised childcare to mean that parents can have an ‘elk days’ entitlement, without their partners having to take holiday to accommodate the hunt ….

Meanwhile, back in Britain, the Nordic experience of dedicated leave for fathers has long been cited as a preferred solution to the problem of gender imbalances in take-up of parental leave.  Today’s report goes so far as to recommend that the government considers replacing the current system of Shared Parental Leave with a Nordic-style independent entitlement for fathers.  The Women and Equalities Committee suggests a 12-week period of paternal leave, with the first four weeks paid at a capped wage replacement rate, and the rest at statutory levels.  While the costs of such a scheme are not inconsiderable, there is scope for them to be balanced by greater participation in the workforce by mothers.  There are still plenty of barriers to the success of such a policy – not least the slowness of government machinery.  Elsewhere in the report there are recommendations related to flexible working which are not slated for review until 2019, and Brexit will keep everyone busy at least until then.  There are also wider barriers, in the shape of prevailing workplace culture, and the long reach of gender stereotypes. But as the Swedish experience shows, we might be getting somewhere with this type of policy in 20 years’ time.  Springing in to action? Maybe not, but perhaps, at last, a kickstart.



New Year, old beginnings …

2 Jan

Like many parents, I’m sure, I read Jess Phillips’ piece in the papers on New Year’s Eve with a feeling of recognition.  She wrote very evocatively about the early days of parenting in winter.  Her baby was in the night feeding stage as Christmas came, meaning that the effort to stay warm when woken in the pre-dawn hours was paramount. Bundled up with a baby in blankets on the sofa, the world shrinks to a milky bubble.  It took me right back to the strange half-lit half-life of the first few weeks with my own two children, but with two important contrasts.  My firstborn arrived in summer, and therefore the struggle was not how to stay warm in the darkness, but rather how to keep cool enough… and I did not manage to learn from my experience, as my second child was also born in the holiday season.   As another year comes around it’s a time to reflect on past and future, and I found myself transported back to that time of muslin cloths and weak sunlight: the seemingly endless weeks in the not-quite-daylight, nursing newborns….

My first birth did not proceed to plan, so we were in hospital for several days.  It was already warm outside.  I remember holding my new baby up to a mirror as the scent of gifts of flowers hung cloyingly around us, and the noise of the city from the street below was like something from another world.  When we got home, it was one of the hottest weekends for years, and I was fixated on the card thermometer in the bedroom which, even in early hours, struggled to stay in the green hues of the ‘comfortable’ zone.  As my son fed, in his little vest, I worried that he was getting too red from shared heat as he lay in my arms.  I would settle him under a muslin square as we saw the night hours through listening to the radio – the World Service still makes me think of babies.   Our bedroom then was painted blue, and as the rising summer sun filtered through the curtains and played on the walls, it was almost like being in a fish tank – the glimmer made it hard to get fully asleep again.

When my second baby was born, it was already high summer, and I remember particularly taking her on an early outing, after a few weeks back in the fish tank.  We were off to the suburbs to spend a day with relatives in their garden.   I was pleased to be getting away from our street where the buildings reflected heat off each other to make things even more oppressive – just my luck that this turned out to be among the hottest days on record in the UK.  I was concerned that the baby would get overheated and distressed in unfamiliar surroundings.  In fact, we set her in the shade at lunchtime, and she just slept, and slept, completely peaceful all that long hot day.  She woke in the late afternoon, and as soon as we got home it was a clear that it would be another very broken night.  With a cooling fan droning past us, we somehow got through, stickily, to the other side …

Those, hazy, hallucinatory days of summer sleeplessness taught me a great deal about babies’ resilience, and about keeping going… This New Year, my children are both teenagers, full of lives of their own, and the challenges are rather different. But even at this distance, reading about the cocoon of early parenthood brings it all back. The long nights of early child rearing are a kind of a time capsule – although deeply buried, you can always revisit them.  It’s a phase that does pass – often with relief –  but it is also somehow indelible.  A season in life, no matter what time of year it happens.




Dad skills are from Mars ….

9 Oct

Buried in the headlines the other day (but not sufficiently interred to avoid mention in the Today programme’s papers slot) was a story about ‘Dad skills’.  A survey was conducted to find the top 50 skills for the modern father.  Even the king of low expectations could not have masked a little disappointment that the number 1 skill was identified as ‘keeping calm during family arguments’ – because women and children are always just losing their shit – and in the case of mothers, cleaning it up afterwards too, obviously….

As the relentlessly stereotyped list wandered on through barbecuing and DIY via the gift of bonding with kids through sport – which is, of course, a male preserve – my pink brain wondered what a list of mum skills would look like.  Since my kids’ Dad has set up wi-fi* (skill no 14) I was of course compelled to Google it.  And I have to say I wasn’t quite prepared for what I found – if you  Google ‘mum skills’ what you get is a range of lists which are all about how to put mothering stuff into that awkward gap on your CV.  I was so slack-jawed that I was almost late for picking up my children from after-school activities (I thought that was a task, but as ‘taking children to after-school clubs’ is no. 29 on the Dads’ list, I’m upgrading) ….

‘Mum skills’ are about transferring domestic and child-rearing competences to the workplace, so it’s all time management and negotiation skills (after all, how else do you get 3 year olds to cars?), and how you too can get teams to do what you want.  Now, I know as well as any parent that bringing up children is a profound learning experience, and that you can transfer all sorts of things to the workplace, but the idea that ‘Mum skills’ evoke a kind of marketization of relational stuff, while contemporary ‘Dad skills’ are mainly about outdoor activities and technical fixes, should give us all pause for thought.

Since the majority of mothers are employed outside the home, it seems remarkable that ‘Mum skills’ are discussed in terms of long-term career breaks. As it’s 2016, even Dads need to be ‘skilful’ in meeting their children’s emotional needs.  And apart from the odd nod to ‘counselling’ and ‘negotiation’ these needs seem strangely absent from the lists.  It’s enough to make me want to go and lie in a heap on the sofa with my offspring while discussing their day, or chatting about what’s on the telly (just as well Dad configured it- skill no 8 – but then I do no. 15, plastering holes in walls).

The ‘Dad skills’ survey was conducted for the people behind Bob the Builder – slogan ‘Can we fix it?’ And the answer is, ‘Yes, we can’. How? With less gender stereotyping of tasks/skills, decent shared parental leave, and listening to children, no matter what our work-life balance happens to be.  Meanwhile I’ll carry on blogging while doing other things – after all, ‘multi-tasking’ is pretty high on all those ‘Mum skills’ lists …


*he’s a geek, it makes sense


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