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In an article timed for the debate on the gender pay gap yesterday journalist Polly Toynbee placed care – and how we value it – at the centre of the discussion. The fact that women still tend to be the main carers in their families holds them back from higher paid jobs or makes them accept jobs which are pro rata less than they were earning before they had children. The fact that there are still not enough challenging part-time roles around to meet the demand for them so that women can not only avoid demotion, but continue to progress their careers if they don’t want to work full time, she argued. That’s not to mention that jobs in the caring sector are among the lowest paid.
We simply don’t value care, said Toynbee, because it is mainly women who do it. Yet without people looking after elderly relatives, caring for disabled children, being around to pick up children from nursery or take days off when they are sick or all the myriad things that women mainly do society – at least the part that makes it worthwhile – would simply fall apart. It’s not just the big things like settling a child into school or finding a care home for an elderly relative or even attending the Christmas play. It’s the everyday stuff. There are some ads on the tv about looking after elderly people so they are not alone at Christmas. What about the rest of the year?
The thing is that polls endlessly show that women are okay about taking lower pay for flexible jobs. You could say that this shows they are happy about the situation, but maybe their need for flexibility outweighs the pay. I am pretty sure that if they could find a job where they were paid the pro rata equivalent of what they got on full-time hours they would jump at the chance. I spoke to a dad recently. He said he had reduced to 4.5 days a week and his pay was docked accordingly. However, he still did the same job as he did before. “I shouldn’t complain,” he said, “because women do this all the time.” Yes, he should – because it’s simply not fair to be paid less for doing the same amount of work. Similarly, part-time working is not second rate working just because it’s associated mainly with women.
I know there’s been a lot of discussion about the term flexible working in the past few years. It’s traditionally been seen as a bit of a perk for employees, given that it was first promoted as something for parents and carers [read women]. Like Coke Zero, it has been renamed several times in an effort to rebrand it. It’s smart working or agile working or dynamic working. Anything but flexible working because the aim is to encourage more men to take it and the general feeling seems to be that they won’t take it if it’s associated with part-time women. If calling it smart working means more men will be able to share caring responsibilities then so be it. Changing work culture and making it smarter or more flexible will help both men and women, but it’s another example of how something gets devalued if women do it.
Opening up flexible working legislation to all employees is another step towards changing work culture and making it more inclusive. We are told to argue that flexible working can be an advantage for anyone, not just for people with caring responsibilities, which is true and certainly it is in no-one’s interests for people to feel resentful of colleagues because they get to work their hours while others have to work over their hours. Overwork is a different issue and one that affects flexible workers just as much as others.
It’s the way the legislation is put across that is interesting. In a spirit of promoting the benefits of flexible working for everyone, advocates continually say that it is also for those who might want to do a course or run a marathon or pursue another activity. I have lost count of the times I have read about part-time dads running marathons, coaching football teams or doing the Tour de France. I rarely read the same about women. I know a growing number of dads who do share care responsibilities so I wonder if it is that they feel under pressure to justify not working full time by doing something additional. However, is caring for a child or an elderly relative equivalent to running a marathon or doing a DIY course? Or is this just another way for us to pretend that caring doesn’t matter, that it is a “lifestyle choice” or selfish or any of the numerous other pejorative terms that are regularly thrown at it because everything these days seems to be about pitching individuals against one another rather than coming together to look out for each other?
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.