Significant progress has been made for working mothers in terms of provision for maternity leave and flexible working (although there is still work to be done). However, genuine career parity can only be achieved if taking time out to care for children becomes the norm for fathers too.
The gender divide
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the gender pay gap stood at 15.5 per cent as of April 2020. The gap is shrinking slowly but steadily, having dropped from 17.4 per cent the previous year.
The gap is narrower when only full-time employees are considered – dropping from 9 per cent to 7.4 per cent over the same period. The gap also increases with age, jumping significantly for over 40s. Clearly, a number of factors are at play, but key among them is motherhood and the disproportionate role women play in childcare.
This imbalance has been exacerbated by the pandemic. According to the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee, the ‘gender gap in total childcare time increased over the pandemic; women increased the number of hours devoted to care by more than men, putting an additional burden on working mothers.’ The Committee's report on the gendered economic impact of coronavirus also found that mothers were 10 per cent more likely to be asked to be furloughed than fathers.
Sharing the burden
One obvious solution is an environment where men are encouraged to take more time out of work to care for children. The government introduced Shared Parental Leave (SPL) in 2015 to help drive this cultural shift by allowing working couples to split up to 50 weeks of statutory leave and 37 weeks of statutory pay on the birth or adoption of a child. However, take up has been very low. It is estimated that in 2019/20 only 3.6 per cent of eligible fathers took SPL.
Apart from being hugely complicated, there are two further problems with the current scheme:
- It requires mothers to give up part of their entitlement and share it with the father;
- The statutory rate of pay is very low (currently £151.97 per week) and is not commonly enhanced by employers.
Campaigners (including the TUC, Maternity Action, the Fawcett Society and others) are calling for a fairer system with improved pay and dedicated leave for each parent, so that parents do not have to split the entitlement or transfer it between them. Countries such as Sweden, Iceland, Norway and Finland that have non-transferable rights for both parents have seen higher take up from fathers.
Some employers are ahead of the game, already offering equal leave and pay for both parents. John Lewis Partnership recently announced 26 weeks' paid leave for all employees regardless of how they become a parent (some of this full and some half pay). Aviva has offered equal paid leave for some time and says roughly equal numbers of men and women take leave (although women take significantly more time off than men).
Not all employers can afford to be so generous and any new system offering improved leave and pay would need to come with government support, particularly for smaller employers.
Could the pandemic offer a cure?
Introducing leave is one thing; ensuring fathers take it is another. Many fathers do not take their full entitlement because of the cultural stigma and potential impact on their career. Here, employers have a role to play.
During the pandemic, working mothers bore the brunt of childcare. But furlough and enforced homeworking allowed many fathers to become much more involved. With hybrid working set to become the new normal, the challenge for employers now is to harness this flexibility to drive a cultural shift.
Creating an environment where men and women are equally likely to take time out for childcare will require huge effort from both employers and government. But without it, bridging the workplace gender divide would seem a Sisyphean task.
Adam Rice is knowledge counsel in the employment team at Travers Smith