The debates at this year’s 2013 Top Employers Awards

Shared parenting, alternative families and single parents at work were some of the big issues that emerged during debate at this year’s Top Employer Awards 2013.

Keynote speaker at the event which celebrates best practice in flexible working and diversity was Jo Swinson, Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs and Women and Equalities Minister.

She said women in the workplace represented the intersection of her ministerial responsibilities and were of personal interest as she was just about to become a working mum herself.

However, the problems faced by women in the workplace were not ones which only Government could resolve, which meant it was vital to work in partnership with employers and others.

The minister outlined government policies which were aimed at helping women in the workplace, including the think, act, report initiative which encourages employers to think about gender equality, analyse the problems and report back on what they are doing to resolve them.

“There are significant reputational advantages to showing commitment to gender equality,” said Swinson, adding that the initiative was not limited to pay, but embraced issues such as retention, recruitment and promotion of talented women. So far over 130 employers have signed up.

Swinson also spoke about attempts to address the cost of childcare, a major reason for women dropping out of work. These included the childcare tax rebate coming in in 2015, the extension of free childcare for three and four year olds and the extension of free childcare for disadvantaged children.

She also mentioned the extension of flexible working and hoped this would make flexible working “standard practice in most organisations”.

And echoing an introductory speech by Gillian Nissim, Founder of, that equality at work began with equality at home, Swinson said that the government’s shared parenting legislation would aid women’s career progression and allow couples to choose whether they wanted to share childcare more equally.

She cited a focus group with employers on shared parenting where one employer told Ed Davey, her predecessor at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, “so we won’t be able to employ men now” to illustrate how shared parenting could reduce discrimination against women in the workplace.

She finished by saying: “At the end of the day we are all people. Many of us will have children. Not having to sacrifice everything is in everyone’s interests. After all, employers would have no customers or employees if people didn’t have children.”

Q & A

In the Q & A that followed, chaired by Jennifer Liston Smith, Director of Coaching & Consultancy at My Family Care, Swinson was asked what the expected take-up of shared parenting was. She said focus groups showed less than 10% would take it up so there was a lot of work to do on communicating how it would work.

It was coming in in 2015, but would affect people getting pregnant in summer 2014 who may already be planning ahead now.

She said: “We really need to get across to men the huge benefits to children of them being more involved in their lives. People make huge lifestyle changes when they have children, but we need dads and dads to be to recognised that part of giving their children the best start in life is spending time with their children. We need to create cultural change to encourage dads to see this as being something that is quite normal.”

The Government is currently going through the results of a consultation earlier this year on the detail of how shared parenting will be implemented. Swinson said it would respond soon. The idea was that parents would need to give eight weeks notice if they wanted to change their plans about maternity leave.

“It is helpful to have some certainty so we would encourage parents to give employers an early indication without it being too binding so employers can plan,” she said. She added that employers and parents to be were often nervous to talk about what would happen after the birth, but if they had a conversation before the birth on what they would like to do, even if that changed afterwards, it would “reduce the fear factor”.

She outlined how shared parenting could help employers, for instance, she said if someone was in retail and there was a busy period like Christmas coming they could come off maternity leave for that period, keep their hand in and help their employer out.

Swinson also challenged ideas that men could not work as flexibly as women and said men tended to be afraid of the impact on their career, but women had faced these challenges for many years. She hoped having more women in senior positions would help change the culture in business and make it okay for men to talk about being dads.

The extension would also help reduce the stigma and sense of special treatment around flexible working, which currently only applies to parents and carers, she added.

It could be used, for instance, by grandparents. She was asked why grandparents were not allowed to share maternity leave and said a key policy area was to engage dads more in childcare. There was a danger if maternity leave was shared with grandparents that it would end up with mums and grandmothers sharing the childcare.

Swinson said she did not think flexible working needed to be incentivised for employers because the business benefits were clear, including increased productivity, savings on recruitment costs, better retention rates and higher morale.

Other questions covered in the Q & A included the stall in women’s career progression. Dr Clare Kelliher, Professor of Work and Organisation at Cranfield University, said this may be due to a spurt of progress after the Davies report which had been followed by a lull. The important thing was to build the pipeline to the boardroom.

The panel, made up of the Top Employer Award judges and Marcella Meechan, Head of International HR at William Hill, were asked what could best help women’s career progression and make it easier for dads to work flexibly.

Dave Dunbar, Head of BT Flexible Working Services, said measuring performance on output rather than presenteeism was key. Getting leadership buy-in was vital. BT had started its flexible working policy around 20 years ago in order to save money on real estate.

Gradually the case for flexible working had moved to the HR department as the benefits to staff, recruitment and retention became clear.

The culture was now embedded and self-perpetuating so when a senior manager tried to recall remote workers to the office he faced a rebellion as workers started applying for jobs elsewhere.

Agile working extended to senior managers who “hot plush officed”. The benefits of hot desking meant people could strike up conversations with colleagues they would never normally meet. Dunbar said he liked to watch the movement of staff from small meeting rooms to hot desking to break-out spaces. “A dance happens at BT’s head office,” he said. “The organisation flows.”

Single parents

The panel were also asked whether businesses could do more to support single parents given that initiatives like shared parenting did not apply to them. Professor Kelliher said organisations that had parenting networks tended to have sessions and support on offer for single parents.

Alternative families also faced particular problems. Karen Holden of A City Law Firm said surrogate parents would not be able to benefit from shared parenting because it took six months after the birth to apply for a parental order. “There are gaps in the legislation,” she said.

Atkins, winner of Overall Top Employer, was asked what it was doing on women’s career progression. Victoria Jones, the engineering company’s Recruitment Manager, admitted it was a challenge bringing about change in a male-dominated industry, but said Atkins had found a multi-pronged approach worked involving initiatives including networks, flexible working and women’s career development plans. “There’s no one magic thing that can change things,” she said.

Barclays, which won the Talent Attraction Award, was asked about its recruitment work. It had started a flexible working campaign internally and externally and was openly advertising flexible jobs.

It used social media to start conversations and spread the word. It did outreach work, including with schools, and sponsored events linked to work life balance issues. 

It had boosted its job share register – instead of potential job shares having to find their own partner there was now support to find a suitable partner and coaching.

Flexible working had also been moved and now came under its multigenerational agenda to reflect that younger people now expected to work flexibly and many older people were looking to work reduced hours in the lead-up to retirement.

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