We look at the main news stories that we covered on the cost-of-living crisis, childcare, gender equality, flexible working, and more.
The UK had a tumultuous start to the autumn – Liz Truss became prime minister in early September only to resign 45 days later, making her the shortest-serving prime minister in UK history. Both she and her successor Rishi Sunak grappled with the cost-of-living crisis, as rising prices took an increasing toll on households and spurred workers in several sectors to strike for more pay.
We look at the main news stories that we covered in September-December, concerning the cost-of-living crisis, childcare, gender equality, flexible working, and more.
Truss took office as UK households and businesses struggled ever more with the cost-of-living crisis – a crisis with gendered impacts. Research showed that women were more likely to have made cutbacks and be anxious about their finances than men, while 5.2 million workers overall had been forced to take on an additional job. A Glassdoor survey found that 58% of workers said flexible working had helped them to offset some cost-of-living pressures – but many were also concerned that hybrid working might affect their career progression.
On childcare, Truss faced calls from campaigners and experts to tackle the UK’s patchy and expensive system. A report by the IPPR think-tank found that many parents on low incomes couldn’t afford to work, due to childcare costs and the structure of some benefits, while other research showed that families with children under two in inner London would face nursery bills of £2,000 per month by 2026 if current price rises continued. Meanwhile, Labour announced that, if elected, it would set up free breakfast clubs for every primary school in England.
When it came to gender equality, there were concerns that the post-Covid “return to the office” was playing out differently for men and women. Male managers were more likely to be back in the office most of the time, Chartered Management Institute research found, and home-workers were treated detrimentally versus office-workers. Meanwhile, another report found that nearly three-quarters of women (72%) had either encountered inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues or had witnessed such comments or behaviour.
But it wasn’t all bad. On flexible working, 86% of companies taking part in a four-day week pilot said they were likely to consider retaining the new working practice. And on parental leave and support, Glasgow City Council became the latest employer to provide paid leave for those who suffer a miscarriage and their partners.
Workingmums.co.uk’s annual survey focused on the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on mothers – nearly half of mums (49%) surveyed had debts ofupto £20,000 pounds, with one in 10 shouldering debts of over £20,000. A report from the Work Foundation also showed that the crisis was highly gendered, with mothers over two times more likely to be in severely insecure work than fathers. The cost of living remained the government’s top challenge – shortly before Truss stepped down, Jeremy Hunt was installed as her chancellor and reversed most of her economic policies. Rishi Sunak became prime minister at the end of the month.
In childcare news, around 15,000 parents took part in the March of the Mummies protest (pictured above), to call for sweeping changes to the childcare system and more workplace support for families. Meanwhile, a report found that childcare for under-twos in England costs over half of an average parent’s salary. A separate report by the Children’s Commissioner said that schools should be part of the solution to delivering good and affordable early-years childcare.
On the upside, there was some positive news about flexible working. Twenty-one employers, including Centrica and Rolls Royce, wrote an open letter calling on other companies to advertise all roles with flexible options by default. The flexible working bill also passed its second reading in parliament. Meanwhile, a third of employers thought the four-day week would become a reality in the UK for most workers within the next 10 years, according to a CIPD survey.
Sunak, now prime minister, and his chancellor Jeremy Hunt unveiled a “mini-statement” with measures to tackle the cost-of-living crisis. Studies continued to show the crisis’ disproportionate effect on women – the average working woman was only 14 days away from the breadline if she lost her income, versus 28 days for the average working man, Legal and General research found.
In childcare news, the number of childcare providers fell by 5,400 on the year, mainly due to a fall in childminders, and the number of childcare places was down by 2%. Almost a third of parents with a child under five said they couldn’t afford to have more children due to the high cost and poor availability of childcare, according to a Pregnant Then Screwed survey. Meanwhile, a parliament committee debated the government’s “relax the ratios” proposal to cut those costs, after a petition against the move garnered over 100,000 signatures.
On gender equality, an annual review of FTSE 100 companies’ boards highlighted major concerns about the ongoing lack of women in key executive roles. Meanwhile, a Social Mobility Foundation report found that people from working-class backgrounds earned 13% less than those from middle-class backgrounds for doing the same job, with working-class women experiencing an even bigger pay gap. And finally, the number of people wanting part-time work – a set-up that often suits women due to caring responsibilities – was found to be outstripping available part-time jobs by four to one.
There was some positive news on parental leave and support. Major UK employers including Metro Bank, Co-op, and Channel 4 signed up to a Fertility Workplace Pledge, which was designed to support employees going through fertility treatment. And the insurer Zurich said that nearly three-quarters of new dads amongst their staff were taking the 16 weeks of fully paid paternity leave that they offer.
This year had a relatively sombre lead-up to Christmas, with the cost-of-living crisis and NHS strikes dominating the news. Analysis by the think-tank Public First found that workers who had spent the last decade in the public sector, where women make up the majority of the workforce, had seen weaker wage growth than their private sector peers. Meanwhile, almost all UK managers said their staff were concerned about the cost-of-living crisis, with significant impacts on stress and productivity, a CMI survey found.
On gender equality, women were more likely to be the victims of ‘quiet firing’, where they were effectively gaslighted to resign through subtle acts and sidelining, a survey found. Meanwhile, KPMG research pointed to social class having a bigger impact on career progression than any other diversity characteristic, with white women from lower socio-economic backgrounds having the slowest career progression rate. And yet almost half (47%) of employers don’t have a diversity and inclusion strategy or action-plan in place, a CIPD report found.
On childcare, fee increases for families next year looked increasingly likely. The government announced childcare funding increases of 3.4%-4% on average for local councils – well below inflation of over 10%. Nurseries, pre-schools and childminders in England also warned of further fee increases and closures if the current state support with their energy bills was not extended beyond the spring.
But let’s end on a positive moment from this month – the Labour MP Stella Creasy got the government to clarify that childcare is defined as “infrastructure”, on a par with schools and GP surgeries, when new housing developments are built. Defining childcare as essential infrastructure could have a big impact on future debates about this topic.