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The recent implementation of regulations requiring businesses and organisations to report on their gender pay gap has brought to light in public debate what is commonly understood and felt by working women and mums everywhere. This is the implicit sense, now demonstrated by gender pay gap figures, that women are being paid less, receiving fewer bonuses and promotions and doing work that is worth less. This has led many organisations to employ the rhetoric of: Mind the gap. But what does this mindfulness mean? Is it a sincere sentiment, more than just a reputation saving flourish? If so, how can this be achieved in any meaningful way in relation to gender equality in the workplace?
A large part of the problem is that women are required to function in a workplace that is not fit for the purpose of supporting them to be mothers, carers and professionals. This leads to a lag in career terms and means that often women cannot progress at the same rate as men. Whilst the workplace is not fit for purpose, women continue to try to hammer themselves to fit into a man-shaped mould at the cost of mental and physical health, relationships with family, friends and colleagues, career progression, business margins and society.
In answer to the what question, mindfulness in relation to the gender pay gap must incorporate thinking beyond the blunt instrument of the figures themselves. Despite figures to the contrary, some organisations maintain the position that there is no gender pay gap in their organisation. The first year of gender pay gap reporting (2017) is but a snapshot of inequality in the workplace. The second year of gender pay gap reporting will be more telling in terms of exposing which businesses and organisations have chosen to do anything about their “gap”. Any organisation and society serious about identifying and addressing the root causes of the gender pay gap needs to address what precedes and perpetuates the gap.
The enormity of this task should not be underestimated and in most cases, requires a complete overhaul of how the workplace is arranged. The status quo currently dictates that businesses and organisations are structured to support heteronormative men to succeed. Anyone who deviates from this model inevitably has to work twice as hard to succeed, to prove themselves. This includes not just women who have children but those with other caring responsibilities or those who do not fit into the traditional family model. These considerations throw up intersectional issues of race, disability, gender, sexual orientation, class and education.
A sincere attempt at understanding how the 21st century workplace can be managed in a way that facilitates the achievement of all its employees in an intersectional fashion needs to concentrate on questions such as: what is a mum?; who is a mum?; what is a family? is mum the main breadwinner who cannot afford to go part time?; is mum a single mum?; is this a two-mum or two-dad household?; what happens when a pregnancy does not go to plan? There is a good business case for facilitating this diversity at work. Ethically sensitive investors are increasingly demanding a more diverse boardroom and workforce as a precondition of investment.
Many parents returning after an extended period of leave following the birth of a child are pushed out of the workplace that they have studied, worked and persevered to become a member of. This ostracisation arises precisely because the workplace cannot bend to meet the demands of childcaring. Instead of the workplace bearing this burden, this becomes the responsibility of working mums and parents. This accounts for high numbers of highly qualified women who retrain to find local, more flexible jobs often in healthcare or education, so that they can be near to their children. These jobs are often paid less as these caring professions, often associated with “women’s work”, are valued less by society than, for example, financial services.
The workplace is built around and relies on a patriarchal, heteronormative family model that considers the man as the head of the household and provider. Under this arrangement women’s role is to absorb the caring duties, administration and emotional labour of the home. Presence in the workplace for women is therefore novel and fleeting and something that can be disposed of rather than accommodated when children come along. This opinion is highlighted by a recent report suggesting that women have no role to play in the boardroom and a national UK survey which found 33% of people thought that mothers of pre-school children should stay at home.
Not all workplaces adhere strictly to these “traditional” values and some are trying to find ways to accommodate family life, whatever that may look like, into the workplace. Policies around flexible working, which it is a legal right to request, are being advanced to the benefit of the working life of women, parents and businesses and organisations as a whole. However, it is important to keep a critical eye on this as some organisations who do well on flexibility still present a significant gender pay gap. This reality needs unpicking. Women and parents should not be sacrificing equality and parity in pay and other areas because they feel grateful for flexible working arrangements. Often women and flexible workers end up working longer hours in to the evening and at weekends to prove that they can keep up with their colleagues.
Legally, the request for equal treatment in the workplace is nothing more than what women and men are entitled to as enshrined in the Equality Act 2010 which includes pregnancy, maternity and gender in its list of protected characteristics. Any differential treatment on the basis of these characteristics can be considered discriminatory. This does not have to be deliberate or malicious, but can simply be the by-product of a workplace structure that is not fit to recognise this kind of diversity. In terms of equal pay between women and men, the concept of equal pay for equal work has been enshrined in UK law since the Equal Pay Act 1970.
Shared parental leave is another recent offering in legal terms that is intended to make working life easier for mums and families. However, the regulations do not support time spent together as a family, but rather facilitate a clear-cut division of the labour of childcare. The regulations do not encourage a societal shift towards valuing family life and addressing the taboo around men taking career breaks to care for their children. This is demonstrated through the extremely low take-up of less than 1%. This also speaks to the fact that there is no additional financial support attached to SPL. Although the financial support that does exist is that which women receive for maternity pay. The majority of families still function on the model of male breadwinner which means that, aside from societal taboo, families cannot afford to take the financial hit. Even in families where the woman is the main breadwinner, societal structures mean that many men are not comfortable asking for SPL.
Having taken SPL with my partner, I can report anecdotally that a number of men have asked me how it works as they are interested. So there is an appetite. What is needed is a shift in workplace cultures to actively promote SPL and raise consciousness around it. Streamlining bureaucracy would also help. Our SPL had the unexpected consequence of a division of the emotional labour around childcare whereby my partner shared some of the angst associated with being the main caregiver. He shared in the worry around our children’s future, whether he was caring for them correctly and the impact his actions were having on them. Shared parental leave provides the space for this concern and forces men to share in this emotional burden.
Gender equality in the workplace is beneficial for everyone, for employees, for businesses and for society. It says something about the kind of society we want to live in and what we value. Gender equality doesn’t only emancipate women from traditional roles as care providers, it emancipates men from a toxic masculinity and it forces us to reconsider what constitutes a family and how the notions of family, dad and mum are constantly shifting and might mean something very different to different people depending on their circumstances.
*Dr Kimberley Brayson is Lecturer in Law and Co-Director Sussex Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Sussex.