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Sir Brendan Barber: 140,000 new dads and the 'who works, who cares' dynamic

Tuesday 03 July 2018

Acas Chair, Sir Brendan Barber discusses one of the prime enablers of gender equality - namely, flexible working.

Acas Chair Brendan Barber blog Sir Brendan Barber

Sir Brendan Barber is Acas' Chair, joining in January 2014. Previously Sir Brendan was the TUC General Secretary (2003 to 2012) and sat on the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service Council (1995 to 2004). Sir Brendan was knighted in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to employment relations.

We all want to support women to realise their potential in their working lives. And we all want to reduce the pay gender gap. One of the most widely discussed channels suggested for achieving these aims is flexible working. If men and women worked flexibly in equal number, the argument goes, then there would a huge cultural shift in our attitudes towards gender roles, caring responsibilities and opportunities to progress at work.

For many, waiting for the gender pay gap to close is like waiting for a tortoise to complete a marathon. But surely we can do something much more speedily about one of the prime enablers of gender equality - namely, flexible working?

The Women and Equalities Select Committee has called for the Government to introduce legislation making all jobs available on flexible terms by default, unless there is a sound business reason for not doing so. With the Prime Minister herself having echoed similar sentiments, there is clearly some impetus behind further change in this area - although other policy initiatives, such as Shared Parental Leave, have been slow to take off (the Government acknowledges that this may be as low as 2%).

It's true we have seen some changing attitudes to the role of women both in society and at work. For instance, the British Social Attitudes Survey [PDF 242kb] (BSAS) of 2013 showed that 33% still think a mother should stay at home when there is a child under school age. This compares with 64% in the 1989 BSAS, and is a change that runs in parallel with the increasingly popular view that mothers should work part-time (up to 43% in 2013, from 26% in 1989).

But if we are seeking a major and ongoing change of attitudes, it's becoming increasingly clear that we also need to ask: what about the dads?

Interesting research from the Institute for Employment Studies (pdf icon Flexible working for parents returning to work: Maintaining career development [396kb]), commissioned by Acas, makes the point that we have for too long viewed flexible working as a purely female issue. Although it has undoubtedly helped many women return to work after maternity leave, and stay in work while accommodating caring responsibilities, it has also created something of a gender trap - reinforcing gender stereotypes, where flexible working is seen as a women's issue, while men can be reluctant to request it for fear of negative impacts on their career. In fact, the report suggests that helping more women reach their potential may require us to look more closely at how organisations treat men.

The report recommends that more employers should treat requests for paid leave from mothers and fathers equally and consider the business case rather than the reason for the request. This kind of approach would surely open up more flexible solutions that work for business as well as both men and women - but are we expecting too much of organisations? Don't the problems go deeper than what can be achieved through employer influence?

As the TUC highlighted recently, one in four men who became fathers in the last year didn't qualify for paternity pay. According to their analysis, from April 2017 to March 2018 there were just under 620,000 working dads around the UK with a child under one. However, nearly a quarter of them (23%) - more than 140,000 new fathers - did not qualify for the up to two weeks' statutory paternity pay. This was because either they were self-employed, including 'bogus self-employed' (100,000 working dads) or they hadn't worked for their employer long enough to qualify for paternity pay, in some cases due to the insecure nature of their contract (41,000 working dads). We can talk about cultural change as long as we like, but addressing these factors may well require other solutions around regulation and incentives in the labour market (on which we await with interest the Government's response to its recent consultations following the Taylor Review of modern employment practices).

Flexible working clearly needs to become a more gender neutral issue, cutting through the 'who works, who cares' dynamic (in which, stereotypically, men do the former and women the latter). Perhaps technology can provide part of the solution. Thanks to smart phones and video calling, more of us work from home - where there may be a washing machine and a full laundry basket, and young children returning home sooner than expected. The fact is that many men working at home may already be better placed to balance their work and caring responsibilities than in the past.

Yet, while nearly two in every five full-time employees want to work part-time or remotely, and while 91 per cent of managers said they were willing to talk to candidates about flexible working arrangements during the recruitment process, only 25 per cent of vacancies advertised in the past year explicitly stated this (Timewise, 'A flexible future for Britain').

So should we start with flexible recruiting? It might at least enable the conversation to happen sooner rather than later. Perhaps more men also need to just take the plunge and, as the popular slogan suggests, "Let's Get F------ Working!"

Acas has just produced some guidance to help employers manage any expectations or disruptions caused by the festival of football that is The 2018 World Cup. Flexible approaches to work can suddenly sound much more appealing at such times - to those employees who are football fans, although others may just wish to escape the hysteria. Our advice is for managers to try to accommodate people without annoying colleagues or harming the business.

But long after the World Cup is over, employers should be making it clear to all staff, and especially to men, that flexible working works.

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