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.


Careering off-track or stalling on re-entry: the hidden brain drain of parent carers from the workforce

Careering off-track or stalling on re-entry: the hidden brain drain of parent carers from the workforce

Since Motherland exploded onto our TV screens last month, the conversation about working parenthood has shifted up a gear. Whether you relate to the character parodies or find them slightly absurd, there isn’t a mother I’ve spoken to who hasn’t recognised a bit of their own lives in the narrative.

As a female growing up in the 80s and 90s, I was always supported to believe that I would have a career. That I could be independent and successful in my chosen path. And, for the most part, I have been. Probably a bit of a ‘Julia’, with a slightly non-descript creative consultancy career and a comfortable home life but with far greater marital equity and less rage than the Motherland character enjoys. (I mean, just where is her husband FGS any why hasn’t she left him yet is all I could think as I binge watched on iPlayer…)

What I hadn’t accounted for though was just how hard it would be, nor how increasingly necessary it would become, to maintain my career once our second child was born with disabilities.

With my first, it was easy. At 8 months, she went off to childcare and we both went to work. A small independent nursery followed by a nanny-share, then a regular pre-school, saw her through her early years contentedly. Childcare was easy to come by, if pricey, and I never doubted my ability to return to work.

With a disabled child, there were no childcare options at all.

As well as the absence of childcare, my calendar was overwhelmed with disability related commitments. Orange had no diagnosis so on top of the twice weekly physiotherapy appointments there were diagnostic appointments, medical reviews and assessments to coordinate.

Unable to return to work as planned, we had to sell our home and move in with my mum while we found our feet again.

In the end, it took me almost three years to build up again to full time work. I have only been able to do this because we moved across the country, have family help and both of us have jobs that mean we can work flexibly with just enough frequency to keep all the plates spinning.

But I am one of an extreme minority.

As Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party and mother to a child with autism says in her piece today for Working Families, we are ‘a small – and very grateful – minority‘ and yet still ‘perpetually worried that it might all fall apart‘.

According to research from Contact A Family, I am one of only 16% of mothers of disabled children who are in paid work, compared to 61% of mothers with typical children.

Women with disabled children, and let’s face it, it is pretty much always women rather than men, are careering out of the workforce at an alarming rate.

And why?

  • The unavailability of suitable childcare for disabled children.
  • The lack of school wrap around care and school holiday care for disabled children.
  • The chaos of medical, health, social care and other appointments that the NHS and local authorities are failing to co-ordinate effectively for children with multiple and complex needs.
  • Cuts in already too sparse respite care and short breaks for disabled children. And the hilarity of the fact that local authorities will allow families to use these services to ‘have a break’ but we are precluded from using them to enable us to work – to bring in an income, pay the bills and to support our families. So, for many families, the cycle of dependency on the state that they don’t want continues.
  • Unavailability of appropriate schooling – The BBC revealed last week in their #BBCsend focus that more and more parents of disabled children are being forced into home schooling because the appropriate schooling for their child’s needs just doesn’t exist.
  • Inflexible employers who do not acknowledge that both men and women have a role to play in child care, particularly when there is a disabled child in the family.
  • A lack of understanding by employers of carers’ needs and rights in the workplace.
  • No provision for paid carers’ leave.
  • Tiredness. Caring for a disabled child often means broken sleep, heavy lifting and managing behaviour. Without adequate support, this can leave parents with very little else left to give.
  • Ill health. Disability and complex medical needs come with a great deal more time spent in hospital than most.

It’s a complex picture, but certainly the first eight items on the list are surmountable with changes to the law and education, health and social care systems to support us.

It might sound expensive but cost analysis carried out for Working Families by Oliver Wyman showed that even just one small change in employment law – a right to adjustment leave for the parents of disabled children – could result in a potential annual net gain to the economy of up to £500 million.

Working Families wants to hear from parent carers about their experiences of combining work and caring. It will help them to campaign to help more parents to get into or stay in paid work. The more evidence there is, the louder the voice.

If you are a parent carer who works, or who wants to, please fill in their survey by 13 December to have your views included.