Kirstie Axtens is Head of Employer Services at the campaigning charity, Working Families, where she is part of the senior management team. She heads up the employer-facing work of Working Families, working with organisations who are interested in developing engaged and high performing inclusive workplaces. Kirstie and her team provide them with insight, knowledge and practical interventions, benchmarking, networking opportunities, events, research, publications, as well as training and consultancy.
“…Are we at risk of creating a fatherhood penalty to go with the motherhood penalty? It would be a very perverse equality indeed to have both sexes downgrading their careers simply because they have children…”
Leading our work with employers
As Head of Employer Services, I lead on all the work we do with employers, raising awareness of the business benefits of family friendly and flexible working practices and helping employers create inclusive and high performing workplaces.
We know from the parents and carers who call our free legal helpline that juggling caring responsibilities with working can sometimes be extremely difficult and we also know that employers can do a lot to support them and enable them to work to their full potential: a win-win situation for all concerned.
My role on a day to day basis
Key to our work is raising awareness of the benefits to the employer of flexible working and supporting parents and carers, so my day is spent talking to those responsible for the people strategy in their organisation.
This involves talking them through the various aspects of the business case:
- Identifying what resonates for them in their organisation;
- Looking at their policies and practices and sharing with them examples of best practice from all industry sectors;
- Taking them through the steps to embedding flexible working as an integral part of the way the organisation gets work done;
- Supporting them with plans of how to change the mindset and behaviours of their line managers and leaders;
- Discussing how to tackle the gender imbalance at senior levels;
- Benchmarking their policies and practices with those of other organisations.
Supporting employers in the lead up to the introduction of compulsory gender pay gap reporting
For over 20 years we have been talking with employers about female career progression and helping them to create workplace cultures that encourage and support women to achieve their potential.
Our annual benchmark covers questions on female retention, management of pregnancy, maternity and returning to work, accessibility and cultural acceptance of flexible working, sponsorship / mentoring / buddying of mothers (and fathers) and take up of flexible working and parental leave by fathers. We also look at how the organisation’s policies and practices reflect their vision, mission and values and espoused desire for an inclusive egalitarian workplace.
Motherhood penalty / fatherhood penalty?
The figures confirm that the gender pay gap really comes into its own after the age of 40. Given that over half of all children born in England and Wales in 2013 were born to women aged over 30 there is a clear link between motherhood and penalties at work. Eight out of ten working mothers would consider their childcare arrangements before looking for a new job or a promotion but now, so would seven out of ten working fathers.
Are we at risk of creating a fatherhood penalty to go with the motherhood penalty? It would be a very perverse equality indeed to have both sexes downgrading their careers simply because they have children.
High childcare costs can also be a barrier to women entering the labour market, or can prohibitively push parents out of employment to care for their own children. We regularly receive calls to our helpline worried about childcare costs and in many cases families will offset the cost of childcare against the mother’s wages, rather than viewing this as a family expense, meaning many women feel unable to afford to return to work.
One in five parents would like to use more childcare but cannot due to the cost and a similar proportion cannot use more childcare because they cannot find provision for the hours that they need.
Last year we worked with the Women and Equalities Select Committee on costing a model for extended and properly paid paternity leave – international evidence shows us that this type of leave can have a real impact on cultural attitudes and behaviour, and this would also prompt employers to think about the potential childcare needs of their male as well as their female employees.
Helping families balance work and time in a way that suits them
Our Modern Families Index shows that half of working families now have two parents working full time – for many this is simply an economic necessity. What we need is for families to be able to balance time and money in the way that best suits them.
At the moment families are under pressure, working long hours to meet unrealistic demands with consequent impact on family life. Half of working parents told us that their work life balance is increasingly a source of stress. This is unsustainable.
So, it’s not a zero-sum game where increasing maternal employment can reduce paternal employment. We’re calling for shared care and shared careers. The shared parental leave scheme is a step in the right direction, enabling parents to share care in the first year or their child’s life but the truth is gendered ideas about who works and who cares are still the norm in many workplaces.
More than four out of ten fathers told us they have lied or bent the truth to their employer about family responsibilities – as long as fathers still feel they need to do this we are nowhere near workplace equality.
Supporting other carers
Many of the measures that could support working parents, especially flexibility, would also help carers too. We know from our work supporting parents of disabled children that in many instances a short period of time away from the workplace would make a long-term difference.
While some employers do offer various forms of ‘emergency leave’ or short-term, temporary flexible working, there is no legal entitlement to a period of ‘adjustment’ or ‘crisis’ leave. Yet for some parents and carers being able to take a period of weeks or months off work after the initial diagnosis of their loved one’s illness, disability or special needs, with the security of having a job to return to, may well be sufficient to enable them to put care arrangements in place and determine a realistic, longer-term pattern of paid work for themselves.
We work with employers showing them how to introduce policies and practices to support those with other caring responsibilities – and as communication and self-identification are a challenge in many workplaces, we also work with them on their communications and engagement strategies.
The common ‘all or nothing’ scenario results in too many parents and carers giving up work at the point of diagnosis out of necessity, then moving inadvertently into long term unemployment, with all of its associated economic and social costs.
Flexible hiring as the norm rather than the exception
We support flexible hiring as the norm rather than the exception. This would really help us get away from the idea that flexibility is doing a favour to employees, and doing a favour to working mothers in particular. But rather than a blanket approach we’d like employers to think through flexibility on a vacancy-by-vacancy basis about the types of flexibility that might be appropriate.
Of course, there are some jobs that have to be done in a certain location and for a specified time, but could job share work in those situations? What is key is actually designing jobs properly in the first place rather than making changes down the line to try and make things flexible. We show employers how to find the flexibility inherent in every role, changing the mind set of line managers and recruitment specialists.
A third of Working Families’ members told us they assess all jobs to see whether they can be done flexibly before they’re advertised. But many also told us that jobs that weren’t advertised flexibly at the outset ended up being carried out flexibly.
Hiding options that might be on the table only serves to restrict the talent pool that employers can recruit from, and potentially perpetuates poor job design. An explicit mechanism in the recruitment process, such as our Happy to Talk Flexible Working strapline, would overcome these artificial barriers.
We’re really excited about the line-up of speakers we’ve got at our annual conference on 4th May, when we’ll be grappling with putting flexibility into practice. I’ll also soon be judging the entries to our Top Employers for Working Families Special Awards. We’ll be unveiling the winners in July. And we’re in the planning phases for National Work Life Week, our annual campaign to get employers thinking about how they can support work life balance.
You can find further information about our support for employers on our website.