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April has marked three years since the introduction shared parental leave, allowing parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay after having a child. In addition, under the terms of a separate policy, large companies with 250 employees or more have this month been required to publish their gender pay gap data.
Despite these relatively new policies, the gender pay gap doesn’t appear to be going anywhere quickly. Take-up of shared parental leave remains unpopular, with the latest figures suggesting it is being used by just two per cent of new fathers. The Government has unveiled a new £1.5 million publicity drive to help better inform parents about the policy, but ultimately many fathers have cited their inability to afford to take shared parental leave as a reason for not doing so, rather than a lack of understanding of the policy.
Clearly, the idea that the mother will stay at home and miss out on her career while the father acts as the family breadwinner has long since been outdated for many thousands of families. With this in mind, the Women and Equalities Committee issued a report in March calling on changes to help fathers with their parental responsibilities – focusing on an increase in paternity pay and advertising all jobs as being flexible.
While the extension of paternity leave rights would provide new fathers with additional bonding opportunities, it is the point around flexible working that I’m most pleased to see come out of the latest discussions.
Raising a child isn’t just about having up to a few months off in the first year, and flexible working options – including compressed hours, working from home and changing shift patterns – presented by a broader range of businesses will mean both mothers and fathers can together decide what their best employment arrangements are to meet their family requirements. This in turn could allow greater opportunities for the mother’s career, empowering women to progress through to senior positions and thereby reducing the gender pay gap.
Flexible working solutions have already begun to prove beneficial not only for fathers and mothers alike, but other employees who may have specific needs and reasons for working flexibly. Senior staff adopting flexible working patterns will mean behaviour modelled from the top of organisations, demonstrating to the wider business how such arrangements can work for both the individual employee as well as the employer.
In addition to flexible working policies within our own organisation, 70 per cent of our 140,000 members are women, and many of these run their own small accounting or bookkeeping practice having gained AAT qualifications in this area. In a number of cases, chances for their businesses to grow and thrive can simply only work through a combination of parental support offered by their partners’ work schemes, along with their own ability to structure a working day that suits them and their family’s needs.
Greater take-up of flexible working could have the added bonus of improving productivity levels in British businesses. I believe that the Government should give additional consideration towards the Swedish model, for example, which has suggested that shorter working hours for both genders could boost loyalty levels and greater overall output. Again, such an emphasis on work-life balance should be led by senior management as part of an overall review of their business’ practice.
Olivia Hill is Chief HR Officer at the Association of Accounting Technicians. The AAT hosted a roundtable from which five recommendations, including paternity leave and flexible working solutions, were made to help enable both employers and employees tackle the gender pay gap.