The ‘Unfinished Business’ of Caring

In recent months, we have seen a renewed focus on the issue of pregnancy and maternity in the workplace and the growing acceptance of the business case for supporting pregnancy and maternity rights at work. Despite this progress, a review by the Equality and Human Rights Commission into pregnancy and maternity in Britain, revealed that high levels of discrimination still exist in both the private and public sector. This report identified that not only can pregnancy and maternity impact the earnings of many women it can also potentially damage their future career progression.

The TUC estimate that around 25% of women do not return to work after maternity leave, and one in six of mums who do go back change jobs because their employer will not allow them to work reduced or flexible hours. And when women do return to work, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that, on average, for a woman a pay gap of 10% exists even before the arrival of a first child. There is then a gradual increase in this gap, until the first child is twelve years old, when it is likely a women’s hourly wage will be a third below a man’s.

Whilst it is important to focus on areas of discrimination that still exist linked to pregnancy and maternity rights and to ensure that we collectively work to reduce inequality in the workplace and within roles, this work also highlights a wider issue operating in our society that we need to address. And that is in terms of how we treat and view not just expectant mothers but others who undertake caring roles in our society.

The majority of paid and unpaid childcare is undertaken by women, and is viewed and valued as low status work. Historically, occupations that are undertaken mainly by women or have been “feminised” are characterised by low pay and are perceived as having low economic value in comparison to work undertaken predominately by men. Anne Marie Slaughter, Hilary Clinton’s former policy chief, in her book “Unfinished Business” argues that to drive change across society we need to stop viewing caring as a “women’s issue”. She talks about building an infrastructure of care, around the notion that “If family comes first, work does not come second. Life comes together”, where caregiving rather than seen as a business cost, is viewed as an asset by businesses and organisations allowing many women to be their most productive in the workplace.

To achieve this, we need to broaden the national conversation to consider changing current childcare attitudes, the level of financial support for shared parental leave and the role that men can and should play in care provision. In Norway over 70% of fathers currently take more than 5 weeks’ paternity leave, whilst in the UK we still have a stigma that prevents many fathers or partners from playing a more active role in early parenting and which has led to a woeful uptake by men of shared parental leave.

We also need to consider the support and encouragement we give to home based work, allowing more parents to set up businesses, work from home, or to study or learn new skills whilst undertaking childcare. And we also need to address the growing “hidden” caring burden, increasingly being carried by many women in support of elderly relatives or parents, and ensure that we are not creating a new “covering” syndrome, linked to ageing.

The introduction of pay gap reporting in 2017, will shine a spotlight on earnings inequity across sectors and within organisations. However, we won’t get near to closing the gender pay gap until we also take action to address the low economic value we attach to caring roles, recognise the contribution of caregiving to the formal and informal economy and invest in it accordingly. Anne Marie Slaughter sets out a vision for the caring economy in the United States, but her focus on the “unfinished” business of how we value and integrate caregiving into our workplaces and society is universal.

Dr Lesley Sawers