Childcare reform is only the start

Providing affordable quality childcare is vital, but on its own it won’t solve the gender pay gap that widens after families have children.

a woman sleeps at her computer with post-it notes covering her eyes


Research this week from the Social Market Foundation think tank has found that a woman who had her first child in 2010/11 typically suffered a cumulative income loss of £66,434 over the following nine years, compared to what would have happened if she had not had children.  The SMF states that many women experience this income drop due to a lack of affordable childcare.

Clearly childcare needs to be completely reviewed and is far too expensive in the UK. But it’s more about how we regard childcare as a country – is it something that is just for parents, a private issue, or is it a social good – giving children a good start in life, ensuring that inequalities don’t become entrenched before they even get to school, ensuring that their parents can work and progress? At the moment we see school in this light, but not the crucial earlier years. There is still the underlying assumption that children are better at home with their parents – particularly their mums. Maybe that is the case for some. Every family is different. Every family faces different challenges. The essential thing is to enable more choice – even if for many there is ultimately little choice in whether they work or not.

Childcare is incredibly expensive in this country. A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report, however, found that many parents don’t pay anything for their childcare so more subsidies wouldn’t necessarily help them. Instead it calls for more targeted support, which is definitely a good thing. However, the childcare issue is a chicken and egg situation – parents don’t pay for it because it is too expensive. People have found ways around it through back to back shifts, using grandparents/friends/other relatives and so forth. Or they have dropped out, gone self employed to get more flexibility or reduced their hours. That doesn’t mean that there is no childcare problem.

The SMF says that solving the childcare issue would address the pay gap women face after having children. It would certainly go some way to doing so, but it is not just the cost of childcare that leads to that widening gap. There are so many other factors involved when women drop out of the workforce – even for a short period – or reduce their hours. Exhaustion is one due to countless sleepless nights, constant logistics planning and trying to fit everything in. Post-natal depression is another. Missing their children is another – particularly if they are in a job that demands long hours and may also involved a long commute. What their partner’s job entails is another – for instance, if they travel regularly, especially if they travel abroad, or they work far from home. Someone needs to be on hand for emergencies so a local job – on less pay – seems the solution.

What is strongly lacking is any sense of a livable vision for the future in so many aspects of our lives.

There are so many different factors that are just not taken into consideration or acknowledged because basically women have usually taken the hit and no-one cared to notice them. It was just assumed that that was how it had to be. Over the decades, the 9 to 5 has morphed into the 7am to whenever, with people taking their work on holiday with them. Even if the hours have not increased for some, the intensity of it has certainly done in many jobs. You cannot turn your back on your emails for a few hours or days without feeling you will return to a deluge and never catch up. This is not to mention the huge backlogs in any part of the public sector currently. Try dealing with the justice system at the moment…

The result is burn-out in so many fields. Yet on we plunge with calls to ‘return to normal’. As with childcare, it is left to individuals to manage the situation in a bandaid sort of approach to getting through the week. The whole thing is absolutely exhausting and pushes many parents to the brink in so many ways. What is strongly lacking is any sense of a livable vision for the future in so many aspects of our lives and a willingness to engage with the breadth of the problems working families face rather than just tweaking things around the edges.

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