Women's workplace rights: opportunities and threats

Submitted by sglenister on Wed, 19/12/2012 - 11:16

19 December 2012

By Preethi Sundaram, The Fawcett Society

The UK is already one of the most lightly regulated markets in the developed world; Fawcett does not believe that deregulating further will inspire growth or keep women adequately protected at work.

Up until last month, the UK’s model of parental leave designated women as carers and men as breadwinners. On the birth of their child, mums were given a year of maternity leave, while dads/partners typically went back to work within two weeks. Not only did this outdated stereotype ignore the genuine diversity of modern families, but it also represented an actual obstacle to equality; preventing men from spending time with their children and women from achieving their potential at work.

Nick Clegg's announcement of flexible parental leave last month signals a turning point in policy thinking, and a crucial step forwards in the fight for equality. Under transferable leave, women will be able to trigger flexible leave arrangements at any point from two weeks after their child's birth. The mother's remaining leave and pay can be shared between her and her partner in whichever way suits them. This resoundingly challenges traditional assumptions, affording parents greater choice and flexibility about the distribution of caring after having a child.

Greater equality in the home is integral to greater equality in the workplace. Women have long been subject to a ‘motherhood penalty’: they do the bulk of unpaid caring in the UK, and face both direct and indirect discrimination in the workplace as a result. On average, women in the UK earn 14.9% less than men, and 14% of this can be attributed to interruptions in employment due to caring work. The new parental leave arrangements challenge the expectation that women will shoulder the brunt of caring responsibilities, enabling partners to play a greater role in their child's life right from the start. The Deputy Prime Minister's further announcement of the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees is also significant in this context, enabling all employees to fit work around their caring responsibilities.

This isn't only good news for families and women, but also for employers. Flexible parental leave and flexible working will help employers to retain experienced and able women in their workforce. By giving women a choice over how they arrange their caring responsibilities and their working hours, the false "choice" that women were offered between family or work is undermined.

Of course, flexible parental leave and flexible working only represent one piece of the puzzle. There is more work to be done; the extension of ring-fenced and paid paternity leave from the current two-week limit is vital to advancing equality at home and in the workplace. Moreover, diminishing childcare services, rising childcare costs, and extensive cuts to sectors where women make up a majority of workers all threaten to push women out of the workplace and back into the home, as well as further widening the pay gap.

Other policy that Government is pursuing risks undermining the ethos and outcomes of the Modern Workplaces agenda. In particular, Fawcett is concerned that the Government's plans to introduce the employee-shareholder scheme will impact negatively on women's workplace rights. Fawcett has concerns about the overarching ethos of proposals that position employment rights as 'red tape' and necessary to reduce in order to enable growth. In a climate where women's access to work is already precarious, it is increasingly important that measures are in place that enable rather than prevent women from working, and that the right infrastructure is in place to both protect women and enable them to flourish when at work. The UK is already one of the most lightly regulated markets in the developed world; Fawcett does not believe that deregulating further will inspire growth or keep women adequately protected at work.

Fawcett is concerned that women, particularly those with caring responsibilities, comprise the group most likely to exercise the specific rights that are part of the employee shareholder status. Women, who rely more heavily on part-time employment to balance work against caring responsibilities, will find it more difficult to take up the employee shareholder status. They are therefore more likely to be discriminated against in the recruitment process, either by being pressured by employers to take up the status as a condition of their job offer or being disregarded due to the likelihood they will wish to exercise excluded rights. Furthermore, framing maternity provision and flexible working as 'red tape' may further entrench pregnancy discrimination against women in the workplace and is directly at odds with Government's ambitions for Modern Workplaces - to afford families more choice and flexibility and to embed flexible working as the norm, rather than the exception.

At a time when women's unemployment is at a 24-year low, we can no longer afford to ignore women's vital contribution to the economy. With ‘one million women missing from the UK economy’, it is vital that flexible parental leave is one part of a wider strategy to place women at the heart of the agenda for growth.

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