The battle for gender equality in the home
The battle for gender equality in achieving a work-life balance is now almost half won. More mothers than ever before are choosing to combine parenthood with having a career, with 2 out of 3 mothers now in paid work, compared with only 1 in 6 in 1950. More mothers have part-time jobs (41 per cent) than full-time (31 per cent).
However, the corresponding shift towards fathers taking over an equal role in childcare is yet to happen. While many women struggle to ‘have it all’, working a double shift as primary care giver and holding down a paid job, relatively few fathers have taken on a substantial proportion of childcare responsibilities. Only a third of fathers say that they share primary responsibility for childcare with their partners and only nine per cent of fathers say that they have primary responsibility for childcare, two per cent of which are lone parents.
This unequal division of roles will reflect some parents’ wishes; in polling conducted for The Home Front, less than half of the mothers surveyed said they would be happy for their partner to be their child’s main carer. However, this element of choice should not be over-emphasised; the cards are clearly stacked against those fathers who do wish to take a greater role in caring for their children.
Firstly, the division of parental leave entitlements is currently grossly unequal. While mothers are guaranteed six weeks of maternity leave, paid at 90 per cent of their earnings, followed by 33 weeks paid at the statutory rate, fathers are entitled to only two weeks of paid birth leave, paid at the statutory rate. From April this year, new regulations introduced by Labour mean that up to 26 weeks of leave that is not taken by the mother can be transferred to the father. Although this is a welcome improvement, such a transfer is only possible if the mother is eligible for statutory maternity pay and has already returned to work. Passporting paternity leave entitlements through the mother in this way perpetuates the assumption that mothers are more appropriate carers for their children from birth onwards.
Secondly, fathers are much more likely to work long hours than either mothers or childless men. Flexible working – either in terms of hours or location - is an important means of supporting parents to juggle their professional and parenting responsibilities effectively and has also been found to have a positive influence on parenting style. The Labour government introduced a right to request flexible working for all parents of children aged up to 16. However, employers are under no obligation to accept requests, and research has found that fathers are not benefiting from this policy as much as mothers. Fathers are less likely than mothers to request flexible working arrangements, and less likely to have their request accepted. Research has also found that more fathers than mothers are concerned that making such a request might have a negative effect on their career prospects. Employers therefore have an essential role to play in supporting working fathers, as well as mothers, to identify flexible working arrangements that can fit around their childcare commitments.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there continues to be a significant gender pay gap of 15.5%. This is both a cause and effect of mothers’ continuing hegemony over family life. 67 per cent of parents polled by Demos agreed with the statement that they were their child’s main carer because it made better financial sense. If men continue to be paid more than women, it will always make better financial sense for mothers, rather than fathers, to take the greater proportion of parental leave, to restrict their working hours or to take a career break when they have a child. When these individual choices are aggregated across the economy, remunerating women fairly and promoting them to senior positions does, of course, look like a greater business risk than doing the same for men. Addressing the gender pay gap and making employment and family policy equally supportive of male and female carers are both, therefore, essential parts of the process for achieving greater gender equality and genuine choice in family life.
The Home Front, which is launched today, argues that role division within families must not continue to be determined by national policy and unimaginative or discriminatory employers. If our society is committed to supporting both mothers and fathers to support their children, we need policies and jobs that are flexible enough to allow parents to choose for themselves.