This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post
The coalition recognised long ago it has a major problem with women. This morning’s speech from the deputy prime pinister was one of the first major attempts to address this challenge through policy. The speech, drawing heavily on the Resolution Foundation report The Missing Million, looked at how to raise female employment through smarter support for families. To Nick Clegg’s credit, it’s not an easy time to be making these arguments. But despite sensible moves to give parents more flexibility, the coalition still has a long way to go to prioritise women’s work.
In the DPM’s favour, the speech contained two promising moves on flexibility. First, the right to request flexible working will be extended to all employees, having previously been reserved for parents of dependent children and some carers. This follows through on a previous promise and is good news, encouraging flexible work to become the norm, rather than a flag that marks out people with caring responsibilities. It remains to be seen whether these rights will also be watered down – a right to request would go from being weak to meaningless if employers aren’t required to respond with a proper process. But, if not, this is a win for work-life balance.
There was also qualified good news in the creation of a more flexible maternity/paternity leave offer. After two weeks of compulsory leave for mothers, parents will now be able to divide up their leave as they see fit. This is a step in the right direction, moving away from a system that all but forces women to be the main provider of childcare, to one in which parents themselves decide. It was admirable that, in arguing for this change, Nick Clegg acknowledged a rarely-spoken truth: women won’t earn what they deserve in the jobs market until men pull their weight in the home. Achieving a more equal balance of caring will be key.
That’s why it was disappointing to see the DPM balancing out these moves with an own goal, abandoning plans to introduce a month of paternity leave on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis. This plan had been handed to the coalition by the previous government and was originally announced on the basis of strong evidence that ring-fenced paternity leave is an important way to balance the financial temptation for women to take the full earnings hit of childcare. As Clegg himself said this morning, “the international evidence shows, overwhelmingly, that these so-called ‘use-it-or-lose-it-blocks’ drive take up”. It also runs entirely with the argument of the speech, supporting women’s work through greater gender equality.
So all in all this morning saw progress on flexibility, balanced out by a missed opportunity on the role of fathers. It’s good to see senior politicians acknowledge the central role that female employment must play in raising living standards in the next decade. And it’s true that improvements can be made by, in the DPM’s words, “shaking up rules and arrangements”. But just as the coalition is finding on childcare, shuffling the pack can only get you so far. In the long-run, we have to invest more as a country in supporting parents to work, particularly mothers who often find that work doesn’t pay. That means putting our money where our mouth is.