Mothers are forced out of the labour market by an economy that does not recognise the value of the unpaid care they provide. There are specific mechanisms that underpin our economy – childcare, parental leave policies and working patterns – that reinforce gendered stereotypes about who performs care and lead to a gender pay gap and low participation by mothers in the labour market.
We want to see that change so that mothers can benefit from the economy as much as anyone else and so that dads can play a greater role in caring for their children. That’s why we’re demanding reform of childcare, parental leave policies and flexible working rights.
Read more about these demands.
Good quality, affordable childcare for all children
We have the second most expensive childcare in the OECD, and yet despite the high costs, the system isn’t working for parents, children, providers or the wider economy.
High quality, affordable childcare is vital social infrastructure. But what do we mean by that?
Just like public transport, it enables people, particularly mothers, to go to work. 1.7 million women are prevented from taking on more paid hours of work because of the cost of childcare. And just like primary and secondary education, high quality childcare helps children to reach their potential. Every £1 invested in early years education saves £13 in later interventions. But infrastructure – whether its transport, energy, or education – requires investment. Our childcare sector has not been prioritised for investment and we’re all paying the price.
Parents pay more for childcare than they pay for housing. Children, especially those in the poorest families, miss out on an early years education that would help to close the attainment gap between them and their better-off peers. More than 4,200 providers closed in the last year and those that have managed to survive are battling 28% turnover among staff because wages are so low. Employers are feeling it too. They miss out on a pool of brilliant, talented mothers like us because we can’t afford the childcare that would enable us to do more paid work. Of course, that also means that the Treasury is missing out on the taxes we would pay if we could work more.
Prior to the pandemic, the childcare sector was underfunded by £662 million per year. It urgently needs significant financial investment from the Government. Current attempts to ‘fix’ the system with deregulation fail to recognise the magnitude of the crisis facing the sector.
Government investment should:
- enable childcare workers to be paid the same as primary school teachers
- increase provision for those who have a child with a disability
- retain current staff-to-child ratios
- ensure any subsidised childcare schemes are funded at the true cost of providing that care
- ensure such schemes start from the end of parental leave
- ensure they are affordable and cost a household no more than 5% of their income
The case for investment
A recent report by the Fawcett Society and PACEY which compared the UK childcare system to other liberal welfare states (Japan, Australia, Switzerland, Canada, New Zealand) stated that:
“Public spending on childcare in the UK is comparatively low. Whilst direct comparisons are difficult due to a lack of up-to-date data, it is likely that, bar Switzerland, the UK sees the lowest rate of overall public spending on the early years sector of the countries in this review, as a proportion of GDP. The countries in this review are not the ‘gold-standard’ for childcare expenditure, and yet, comparatively, the state spends less in the UK.’’
Other countries with similar economies to the UK have recently invested in their childcare sectors. Canada has invested $30 billion in childcare meaning that parents will pay no more than $10 per day. They have done this because, following a successful test case in Quebec, they found that for every dollar they invested in childcare they got between $1.50 and $2.80 back into the wider economy through increased employment. Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Ireland and Portugal have also recently increased Government investment in childcare and the early years sector.
Why investment makes sense
A lack of accessible, affordable, good quality childcare is a significant barrier to women’s participation in the labour market. Analysis estimates that if women had access to adequate childcare services, and were able to work the hours they wanted, they would increase their earnings by between £7.6bn and £10.9bn per annum. This would help to close the yawning gender wealth gap we have in the UK whilst also contributing to the economy. Increased earnings would also help families, particularly single parent families, to meet the rising cost of living, thereby reducing the need for government interventions.
Our research with over 20,000 parents in March 2022 found that almost half are considering leaving their job due to childcare costs and government data from 2018 found that there were 870,000 stay at home mums who want to work but can’t due to childcare costs and availability (that is half of all out of work mums).
Recent analysis from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) found that the number of economically inactive women aged 24- to- 35-years-old who have left work to look after family has risen by 13% in the last year. And while ONS data doesn’t list the cost of childcare as a reason for this, we know from analysis by the TUC that childcare costs, a key consideration for this group of women, have risen by more than £2,000 in a decade.
Investment would also be an investment in children and an investment in our future. Good quality early years provision has been proven to close the attainment gap between the richest and the poorest children, while increasing school-readiness for all children. Evidence from large-scale, longitudinal studies of children participating in early education and care indicate that cognition, school attainment, and emotional and behavioural outcomes are strongly influenced by participation in, and quality of, early years provision. For children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, high quality provision can have an even greater impact, and contribute toward narrowing the gap with their more advantaged peers.
Flexible working to be the default for all jobs
Current flexible working laws do not go far enough to support employees in managing their work and home lives. Neither do they support labour market participation among parents, disabled and older workers. Currently an employee must be in their role for six months before they are entitled to request flexible working and even then they can only make one request every 12 months.
Previous analysis by the TUC found that, prior to the pandemic, 30% of flexible working requests were turned down by employers. More than half (58%) of the workforce had no access to flexible working, increasing to 64% for people in working-class jobs. Earlier this year, the CIPD found that while the pandemic had produced an increase in home-working, other forms of flexible working such as job-shares, flexi-time, compressed hours, part-time hours, term-time working, annualised hours and zero-hour contracts had either decreased or remained stagnant.
The minimum six-month employment period means that employees taking up new roles are not able to request the flexibility they need. This has consequences for a broad range of workers including those living with disabilities or long term illness or older workers looking for flexibility as they approach retirement. In the case of parents, it means that parent-employees can not secure the flexibility they need to manage their caring responsibilities from day one. Current laws also place the onus on employees to make the case for flexible working while giving employers a wide range of ‘business case’ reasons to veto their request. Negative workplace attitudes can mean that employees don’t feel able to make their request for flexibility and such attitudes add to the likelihood of their request being rejected. Further research by the TUC found that two in five mothers did not request the flexible working they needed for fear of being discriminated against.
Our restrictive flexible working laws mean that employers are missing out too. Flexible working is linked to lower staff absence and increased levels of staff retention, engagement and wellbeing. One in three workers say the lack of flexible working available to them is one of the reasons they have considered leaving their job. Research by Sir Robert McAlpine and campaigner, Anna Whitehouse, estimated that rejecting flexible working requests was costing employers in the region of £2bn in staff absence and turnover.
New flexible working legislation should:
- place a duty on employers to list the flexible working options available in every job advert
- give all employees the right to take up any of those flexible working options from day one
- give employees the right to appeal a rejected request
- not place any limit on the number of requests that can be made in one year
The case for legislation
Previous plans to expand flexible working rights were recently left out of the Queen’s Speech. We’re calling on the Government to bring forward that legislation as part of its plan to grow the economy; expanding flexible working rights will help to boost employment among parents, carers and disabled people, open up a broader pool of talent to employers who are faced with 1.2 million vacancies to fill, and boost productivity and growth.
However, despite its benefits, flexible working uptake has stagnated since 2010. Legislation will provide an impetus to normalise flexible working and improve uptake so that we all benefit:
- Parents will have more flexibility to manage childcare thus relieving some of the pressure on our broken early years sector
- Employers will have access to a broader pool of talent including disabled and older workers. Economic inactivity among workers aged 55- to-64-years old continues to rise with 586,000 leaving the workforce in the two years since the pandemic, creating more pressure on the labour market. In a recent ONS survey, 58% of those who had left would consider returning to work and cited ‘flexible working hours’ as the most important aspect of any new job.
- McAlpine research found that a 50% increase in current flexible working rates could result in the creation of 51,200 new jobs and a net economic gain of £55billion.
- Since insurance firm Zurich began advertising all jobs as flexible, they have seen a 66% increase in applications and increased the number of women in senior roles by a third
Previous attempts at raising awareness of flexible working have not worked, and the labour market and the economy now require government to step in and act where employers have failed to.
To increase take up of flexible working and to create a cultural shift in how flexible working is viewed by employers. We want to see an advertising duty which would mean employers have to state the types of flexible working available in a job advert, unless they had a good business reason not to. We call on the government to bring forward primary legislation through an employment bill to strengthen rights in a way that makes genuine flexible working the default for workers in the UK. And where flexible working opportunities are effectively communicated to job seekers – thereby widening access to recruitment to mums and dads, disabled workers, carers, women and older workers.
Properly paid parental leave for all parents
Parental leave in the UK is poorly paid and reinforces mothers as the primary ‘natural’ caregiver. Currently, an employed pregnant woman is entitled to take up to 52 weeks of maternity leave. However only 39 weeks of that is paid: six weeks paid at 90% of salary and the rest paid at a meagre £156.66 per week. Self-employed women have even less entitlement. If you qualify, you can get between £27 to £156.66 a week for 39 weeks. Adoption leave is paid at the same rate – £156.66 for 39 weeks – but only for one parent.
Employed fathers receive just two weeks of statutory paternity pay at £156.66 per week. The numbers of employed dads taking paternity leave fell from 213,500 in 2017/18 to 170,000 in 2020/21. It has fallen every year since 2017 while the number of mothers taking time out for caregiving has increased. And for self-employed dads and partners? Nothing. There is currently no paid leave available to self-employed dads and partners or to adoptive parents of either sex who are self-employed.
To date, the Government’s solution to equal parenting has been the Shared Parental Leave system which allows mothers to share up to 50 weeks of her maternity leave and up to 37 weeks of her maternity pay with her partner. Currently uptake sits at about 3-4%. In most relationships the dad will be the higher earner and so it is not financially viable for him to share leave that is paid at £156.66 a week.
So, you see, it’s not working. There is a dad-shaped hole in our parental leave system, and consequently in the lives of our children. Existing parental leave policies frame fatherhood as dispensable and reinforce gendered stereotypes about who performs care. They also fail to recognise the different ways in which people come to parenthood and the diversity of families in present-day Britain. All of this results in mothers taking more time out of work to care for their children because fathers can’t, leading to an embedding of the gender pay gap.
New parental leave policies should:
- provide both new parents with a minimum of six weeks paid leave at 90% of their salary. This should apply to all new parents – employed, self-employed and adoptive – and it should be ring-fenced and non-transferable.
- recognise that parental leave exists for multiple reasons; some of maternity leave is about recovery from birth, while some is about caring for the baby – something the other parent is also capable of doing, and something they want to do.
- take up recommendations made by the Fatherhood Institute to provide 40 weeks of parental caregiving leave to families, in addition to enhanced maternity and paternity leave, that can be shared between them. 27 weeks of that should be paid at the National Minimum Wage, and the remaining 13 weeks unpaid.
- Implement a ‘use it or lose it’ policy to encourage uptake
As a matter of urgency, current parental leave pay should be uprated in line with inflation so that new parents do not fall into poverty during the cost of living crisis simply for caring for their baby.
The case for parental leave reform
Reform of our childcare sector coupled with reform of parental leave policies has the potential to radically transform the economic fortunes of mothers, help to close the gender pay gap and improve labour market participation.
A driving cause of the gender pay gap, and the reason it persists throughout a woman’s career, is the time that mothers take out of employment to care for families. Research also shows that the longer a woman has out of work, the more likely she is to suffer discrimination on her return to work including during recruitment processes.
Where fathers have the option to take properly paid paternity leave, it has notable positive impacts on women’s earnings. A Swedish study found that a woman’s earnings rose by 7% for every month of parental leave taken by her partner. It also impacts quality of life and relationships. A recent study found that where employees were eligible for earmarked paternity leave, life satisfaction of both the father and mother in that family increased by 10.8%. Previous research has shown that the more time children spend with their fathers growing up the higher their outcomes, the higher their IQ and the more secure their attachment.
But this isn’t just about women’s earnings. Dads want to care for their children. The ‘State of the World’s Fathers’ survey found that 85% would ‘do anything’ to be able to stay home with their babies. Where parental leave is reformed to improve the rate of pay, it allows dads to do just that.
In 2006 Quebec reformed its parental leave system so that dads received five weeks leave that could not be transferred to the other parent, and paid 70-75% of their salary when they took this up. Take up rates jumped 250% and now 86% of parents in Quebec share their leave compared to just 15% of dads taking paternity leave in the rest of Canada. The average length of paid, father-specific leave across OECD countries was just above nine weeks in 2021, compared to just two weeks in the UK.