Employers who are serious about fixing the gender divide could broaden their focus to men as well as women.
Significant progress has been made for working mothers in terms of provision for maternity leave and flexible working. 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 is shrinking slowly but steadily and stood at 15.5 per cent as of April 2020.
The gap is narrower when only full-time employees are considered. But the gap increases with age, jumping significantly for over 40s. A number of factors apply, but key amongst them is motherhood, and the disproportionate role women play in childcare.
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, since inception take up has been very low, averaging at around 3.6 per cent of eligible fathers taking SPL.
Apart from being hugely complicated, there are two major issues with the current scheme:
1. It requires the mother to give up part of her entitlement to share with the father
2. The statutory rate of pay is very low (currently £151.97 per week) and not commonly enhanced by employers
Campaigners are calling for a fairer system with improved pay and dedicated leave for each parent, so that parents do not have to split or transfer the entitlement between them. Scandinavian countries that have non-transferable rights for both parents, have seen higher take up rates from fathers.
Some large employers are ahead of the game, already offering equal leave and pay for both parents. However, 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 help change this?
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 childcare. With hybrid working set to become the new normal, the challenge for employers and the government is to harness this flexibility to drive a cultural shift, to help create an environment where men and women are equally likely to take time out for childcare.
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