Will the COVID-19 pandemic result in family-friendly working policies?
It has been widely reported in the media that the COVID-19 pandemic has had much more of an impact on women than men in relation to caring responsibilities and employment inequalities. The United Nations has reported that the impact of the economic shock which disproportionately affects women is likely to outlast the pandemic and comments that ‘a pandemic amplifies and heightens all existing inequalities’. Examples of some of these inequalities include higher loss of employment due to the larger proportion of women in insecure, informal and lower paid jobs and an increase in unpaid care work which is predominantly done by women.
A recent report from the Women and Equalities Committee found that government policies in the UK had consistently overlooked the inequalities experienced by women during the pandemic. The report made a number of recommendations including: a review of the adequacy of statutory sick pay; funding of training schemes aimed at women in certain fields; and publishing a gender equality plan for apprenticeships.
These recommendations have been rejected but the government has stated that it does intend to address a number of issues that disproportionately affect women. Although no timescales are indicated, the government claims to be committed to addressing flexible working to remove the 26-week service requirement. There is an intention to make it easier for people to work flexibly and a consultation on making flexible working the default position. The government also intends to extend the redundancy protection period afforded to mothers on maternity leave so that it applies to pregnant women and for six months after a woman’s return to work.
The proposal around flexible working could eventually see a fundamental shift in employment and working practices in the UK. However, a major obstacle to obtaining equality is the failure of shared parental leave to address the gender childcare gap. Only 3.6% of eligible fathers took shared parental leave during 2019/20. Many men still feel that taking shared parental leave will negatively impact their career. The charity Maternity Action recently published a proposal to reform shared parental leave. It suggests individual, non-transferable rights for each parent based on a 6+6+6 model. The mother will get the first six months off and then each parent will be entitled to six months of non-transferable leave. The report also recommends that maternity, paternity and parental leave and pay should be day one rights for working parents regardless of employment status, that the right to return to the same job after a period of leave should be strengthened and statutory leave pay should be increased to at least the level of the National Minimum Wage.
The experience of other European countries would suggest that unless both parents do receive a period of non-transferable leave, the number of fathers taking leave will not significantly increase. Men still report a lack of acceptance around them taking parental leave and men who have worked in other European countries are often surprised at the negative perceptions that still exist in the UK. Clearly the economic impact of taking leave and being paid at low statutory rates means that for many families it is not realistic for men to take a period of parental leave. The existing gender pay gap means that it is still the case in many households that the male is the higher earner. The current parental leave scheme is complex to the point where many advisers are glad they are rarely asked to advise on it. Any scheme should be much more user-friendly both to encourage uptake and to make it easier for employers to administer.
It is hoped that positive changes will come out of the pandemic and that a timetable for action will be forthcoming. An increased acceptance and acknowledgement of the benefits of flexible working may help many families. If the inequalities experienced by women during the pandemic result in positive change, perhaps there will be benefits for everyone. This is a sentiment echoed by the UN in their recent report (Policy Brief: the impact of COVID-19 on women) ‘putting women and girls at the centre of economies will fundamentally drive better and more sustainable development outcomes for all’.