Let me share one story of a woman I have been working with after her husband asked me for help. An experienced senior manager in Retail with MS she was ecstatic on learning she was pregnant when she had given up hope. She went to her employer on a Thursday with the news; the following Monday she was put on notice of redundancy. It being clear she would be the one to be made redundant she moved in to a grievance procedure.
In the meeting whilst cramping with pain she was told if she left then the grievance would be over. Finally she left for maternity leave 1 ½ months early with the redundancy delayed till her return, hospitalised for stress related problems with her pregnancy.
Another woman, a board member of a large corporation, encouraged to change role whilst on maternity leave to find the role then made redundant and her with it. These are everyday experiences for women in the workplace, and during this recession the situation has become worse.
A few weeks ago the Institute of Management launched research showing the gender pay gap has increased since 2010. Only one in four females make it into top roles, despite them making up 57% of the executive workforce and women are more likely to be made redundant. European research also shows that, across the EU, once redundant women take longer to get back in to work.
We know this is not just about fairness. If we fully used the skills and qualifications of women currently out of work, figures tell us it could deliver economic benefits of between £15 and £21 billion every year. If women set up businesses at the same rate as men, there would be an extra 150,000 start-ups in the UK each year, business our economy needs. Equality and economics make sense.
As a Party though, we still have a fair bit to do. In 2010 The Fawcett Society surveyed election candidates on their commitment to action on women’s inequality. Tories were particularly poor at 2%, Labour was at 23% and the Liberals at 20%. Being better than the Tories is not a great rallying cry; we need real answers to the problems women face at home, in society and in the workplace.
Women at all pay levels need support in both understanding their current rights and how to fight for them, especially when pregnant. Unions play an impressive part in organisations where they exist but for many working in the private sector a union isn’t currently in the picture.
In government we could help incentivise business to think more creatively about flexibility in hours, working from home and how that can actually help cut business costs. But for women to be freed to reach the top we also need to enable men to share parenting from the beginning.
The new flexible parental leave is an excellent step forward. We aren’t ahead of the field in this area, which means we can learn from the successful policies of others ahead of us across Europe. Sweden for example introduced shared parental leave in 1973 but take-up increased in the ‘90s after further reforms.
Legislation and policy will deliver results. We can see that from the experiences of other countries who have gone ahead of us. Practicalities are not the only barrier to women being freed to work by men sharing the caring.
An OECD report in to “the unpaid economy” last year showed that out-of-work fathers in Britain spend on average just 63 minutes caring for their children compared with 81 minutes spent by working mums or 105 minutes for an unemployed Australian man. We need to address the cultural perceptions around women as sole primary carers, perceptions held by fathers and perceptions held by businesses.
The journey starts with us in the Labour Party ensuring that women’s equality is a priority for us in our next manifesto and in government. How will we measure our success? For me our measures are threefold: in the number of women we have standing for Parliament to represent our gender; clear policies around women’s rights along with a clear narrative about what that will look like to women in their daily lives not in the abstract; a majority at least of our Labour candidates should show they understand the importance of our stand in the pre-election Fawcett survey.
Karen Landles is an LFIG executive member and a behavioural change adviser