What are we trying to fix? Mothers, fathers, or work?

What are we trying to fix? Mothers, fathers, or work?

Last week, working dads hit the headlines. And about time too.

As the Women & Equalities Committee announced its findings that working dads are being failed by workplace policies, radio and tv news were alight with the talk of paternity leave, with the usual comparisons to how things are done in Sweden, the apparent holy grail of work life equilibrium.

In our own lives, we tiptoe along a tightrope of constantly competing family and work commitments. While I suspect it was easier for me as a mother to request some form of flexible working than it would be for most fathers, ultimately, employment still failed me. Twice.

Last month’s mega trends report from the CIPD showed that the number of people choosing self-employment just keeps on rising. The growth being driven predominantly by women.

Have women in the UK all of a sudden got the self-employment bug?

Or has employment failed them too?

As an economy, we have invested huge time and resource in changing legislation and workplace culture so that it can be more ‘motherhood friendly’. And yet women are leaving the workforce in ever increasing numbers.

Something just isn’t working.

Old school stuffed-shirt rhetoric would say it’s us women. We don’t work as employers need us to. We ask for too much and give too little in return. The men, after all, are the reliable mainstay of the workplace. Rarely asking to work flexibly. Never leaving early to attend a school play. Never taking a day off at short notice to care for a sick child.

Except that’s just not true.

Today’s generation of dads want more than any other in recent history to be in equilibrium with their work and life so they can play an equal part in raising their children and running the home. All the dads under 40 that I know, including, I am glad to say, the one I am sharing parenting with, are doing this already, work flexibility or no flexibility.

So after decades of trying to fix women in the workplace, and beyond maternity legislation arguably failing, we should now try to fix the men?

Sarah Jackson OBE, Chief Executive of Working Families doesn’t think so. And I agree. The charity’s most recent Modern Families Index showed that men are already making compromises. Turning down job opportunities and promotions just as many women do, in order to maintain some semblance of balance.

Except it’s not working. Because we are trying to fix the wrong things.

Parenthood doesn’t stop at the end of maternity or paternity leave, or when our children start school. It is a lifelong commitment.

Focusing on equalising maternity leave and paternity leave ignores the enormous elephant in the room that, for the most part, conventional employment and family life are pretty incompatible.

People string it together of course. Because roofs and heads dictate that they have to. Often at the expense of their own physical or mental health and wellbeing, or that of their partner, or children.

Equalising maternity and paternity leave does not help the family with a teenager having an anxiety crisis. Or the grandparent whose son or daughter has a child with a long term health condition or disability and desperately needs an extra pair of hands. It also doesn’t help the son or daughter whose own parents are ageing and may need daily help because of frailty, dementia, or cancer.

This is life. It’s big and messy and complicated.

It happens to all of us in one form or another and if employers want to maintain the quality of their workforces, they need to start reshaping what they do and how they do it.

What we collectively need from employers are employment and career opportunities that are flexibly and genuinely open to people at all stages of their lives, so they don’t have to stop when another part of their life demands pole position.

But bosses haven’t caught on. According to recent figures, less than one in ten ‘quality jobs’ (paying £20,000 FTE or above) are advertised as being open to flexible-working options. This is trapping millions of employees who are either unable to progress their careers on a flexible basis or are locked-out of the jobs market completely due to their need to work flexibly.

So what do we do?

How do we fix work so that employment and family are not an either/or.

As Sarah Jackson said, “There is not one type of job that couldn’t benefit from being flexible in some way, even an A&E consultant can job share.”

Creating a flexible and supportive workplace can come in many guises.

Innovative shift pattern planning.

Annualised hours.

Unlimited leave as seen at Netflix and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Paid carers’ leave as recently announced by Aviva. These are the shining lights of hope in an employment market still hellbent on bums on seats nine-to-five.

These are the companies that have realised just in time that there are real risks to business in employees choosing to resign in search for a better work-life fit. These are the companies who have realised that flexible working is not a bolt-on to solve individual employee problems one by one, it’s about developing a culture where an organisation’s people are in control and are measured on results not presenteeism.

Parenting and caring are a life reality. Work is a requirement to pay the bills and for most of the population still, that means being employed.

We shouldn’t have to choose between the two, or be forced into taking our chances in the self-employment market if we don’t want to, simply in order to protect our own health and wellbeing and that of our families.