Parents, careers and gender equality : where we are, where we will be, how to get where we want to be

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My kids are now big enough to not want much to do with me these days. But those years from baby to teenagers defined my professional life and that of most of my female peers. For some, it has meant losing their careers altogether; for others taking a step back; the rest juggled it all as best they could. This simply was not the case for my male peers whose professional lives continued pretty much undisturbed (save probably for dark rings under their eyes).

When it comes to work, employers need to do much more to help achieve gender equality at this crucial time when a couple starts a family. I have two specific proposals: 1 - share parental leave and pay equally;
2 - put in place a ban on making a pregnant woman or new mother redundant, other than in very limited and clearly specified circumstances, such as closure of all or part of a workplace.

See why below.

Where we are:

  • Maternity leave: a fairly generous entitlement of up to a year off for women who have a baby.
    Maternity pay:
    working women may be entitled to be paid during some of that time off if they have worked for their employer long enough and earn enough. Unless your employer tops that up (and lots do), after the first 6 weeks (where you get 90% of your pay), you only get £156.66 or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is the lower) for 33 weeks and nothing after.

Now for some of the aspects that in my view start creating the gender inequality:

  • Partners get 1 or 2 weeks paternity leave by law. Yep, 1 or 2 weeks v 52. In theory people could make use of shared parental leave, a system that enables parents to share parental leave and pay but only 3 - 4% of eligible parents do. It's too complicated and a key issue is that if the mum's employer tops up maternity leave but the partner's employer does not top up shared parental leave, you'll often be worse off financially letting the mum return to work and the partner take care of the child (shared parental leave is effectively £152 per week - or less than half of the national minimum wage...).

    And so starts the inequality: the pregnant mum will end up out of the workplace much longer than her partner because financially it will often make more sense.
  • Returning to work: In theory you are entitled to your job back (or something close to it) when you return from mat leave. But what if the job is no longer there? I see this happen a lot in my legal practice: the woman goes on mat leave, the company finds a different way of delivering the work in her absence and so on her return the job is not there anymore. If the new mum was in a unique role and her tasks were redistributed across a number of people in different jobs, the employer can quite easily argue it's a legitimate redundancy/reorg (its requirement for employees to carry out her work is diminished). In theory, while pregnant, she has a priority right over any suitable alternative vacancies (the MAPLE regs) ahead of others who are at risk of redundancy. But often there are no such vacancies. Everything else is just as it was. It's just that the waters closed over her as she left for a year. Each case will turn on its own facts and there may be unfair dismissal/discrimination arguments, but that is not an easy route especially if your employer is offering a bit of an enhanced redundancy package in exchange for just walking away quietly.

Where we will be:

  • A private members bill, now backed by government, is partly fixing that last problem: The Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Bill will extend protection in redundancies so that pregnant women get this priority access to suitable alternative vacancies ahead of others at risk of redundancy for longer. The protection will now cover them for a total of 18 months from the start of mat leave. This will probably come into force sometime next year.

It's a start but I agree with the pressure group Maternity Action that this is not going far enough. And this is why I am suggesting 2 ways to move towards where we should be: gender equality in career progression

  • Share parental leave and pay equally: imagine a world in which both parents can access the same amount of leave/pay, shared between them as they choose. There is plenty of evidence that both partners would like that. The law is not there but there is nothing stopping employers from doing this and indeed some already do. Since 2017, Aviva offers its UK employees 12 months Parental Leave, with 6 months at full basic pay, whether you are the one giving birth or not. There. Don't say it can't be done.
  • Put in place a ban on making a pregnant woman or new mother redundant, other than in very limited and clearly specified circumstances, such as closure of all or part of a workplace. Again, the law is not there (I dare to dream one day it will be) but as a company, nothing stops you from adopting that approach: commit to waiting at least 6 months until after she has returned to work before making any decisions about who is needed and who is not.

This is obviously not an exhaustive exploration of the law, the other changes possible or indeed the implications of change. It does not cover adoption leave, antenatal rights etc. It is definitely not legal advice either and should not be relied on as such. But in this article, I am sharing two key ideas which could easily be implemented by those employers who have the resources to do so. Share them, spread them, implement them. We all deserve a fairer system: mums, partners, children. I won't rehearse the argument on how employees will reward you with their loyalty and commitment when you offer them that kind of support.

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