Modern Family Working Arrangements in the UK
The challenges facing 21st century providers and carers.
The nature of work in the United Kingdom is changing radically. Current government policy does not reflect modern working and employment practices, putting new and prospective parents at a disadvantage when attempting to equally share care responsibilities for their children and create work-life balance for both parents.
The 2008 recession impacted family working patterns with the loss of almost one million full time jobs. In response to the recession, many employers had to choose between reducing jobs, or hours through introducing more part time working. Many workers moved to a ‘mixed hours’ culture in order to keep their jobs. Since the recession increasing ‘bogus self-employment’ and ‘precarious’ employment such as the short term and zero-hours contracts have been utilised by families in order to maintain income and keep a foot in the job market. Zero hour contracts in particular have attracted controversy since their introduction, offering poor financial stability, with employers not obligated to offer the employee a set working pattern, or any hours at all if a full workforce is not required. These forms of working put households at risk of not being eligible for family friendly policies such as maternity/paternity leave and parent leave because the outdated eligibility criteria do not apply effectively to our changed working environment and increased use of these ‘non-standard’ working arrangements.
What are we doing?
UEA’s Dr Matthew Aldrich (School of Economics) and Professor Sara Connolly (Norwich Business School) are part of the Modern Fatherhood Project, a study that aims to investigate the role of fathers in the 21st century as economic providers and carers, conducted in collaboration with UCL and NatCen. This study took the first and only father centred snapshot of household working arrangements to understand how families organise family care. The team looked closely at eligibility rules for family-friendly and care policies in the United Kingdom. Of those who are of prime working age and in the peak fertility period (aged 20-49 years), 24% of men and 26% of women would not have access to paid paternity and maternity leave. Additionally, 12% of women would not even be eligible for maternity allowance – the ‘safety net’ designed to ensure protections for new mothers.
Their work has had a significant impact both in the UK and across Europe. As a direct result of their research, together they investigated access to parental leave across the EU on behalf of the European Institute for Gender Equality. EIGE was established to contribute and strengthen the promotion of gender equality. The biennial index demonstrates what life looks like across the EU’s 28 member states, across areas including health, work and money, within a framework that is able to highlight the differences between a male and female citizen. Their work led to the creation of two new measures in the EU’s Gender Equality Index.
What did we find?
Following the birth of a child, care policies are also in place surrounding ‘parental leave’. Parental leave is different from maternity/paternity leave and allows those eligible employees to take time off work to look after their child’s welfare. This could be due to a young child needing care due to illness, for parents to look at new schools or settle children into new childcare arrangements. During this type of leave their employment rights like the right to pay, holidays and returning to a job are protected. Professor Sara Connolly says ‘[w]e were surprised with the extent of variation in access to parental leave across the EU28. Rates were highest in 4 countries - Estonia, Croatia, Finland and Sweden with nearly 100% eligibility of women and men age 20-49 years, but lower in many others. Greece, the UK and Ireland had the lowest ineligibility rates, with up to 1/3 not able to access parental leave. Across Europe 1 in 10 of those in employment are not eligible.”
“The UK is pretty much the worst across the EU for care policy.”
Across the EU the parental leave benefit also varies, with some countries offering a paid flat rate or a percentage of your daily earnings. Parental leave in the UK is currently unpaid, which is an issue in itself. If you are not eligible for parental leave at all, your absence from work is unauthorised and could leave the employee in breach of contract, leading to possible disciplinary action.
As explained by Connolly “[t]he UK is pretty much the worst across the EU for care policy. For parental leave in the UK, you aren’t eligible if you are self-employed, or unless you’ve been with your current employer for more than a year. That’s a lot of people, and particularly young people, that aren’t eligible because job turnover is particularly high in some industries, also if you’re new to the job market it’s hard to have accumulated those sorts of rights”.
Prospective parents – particularly mothers – may plan family formation around eligibility for care support, so falling fertility rates in the UK may be exacerbated by the high rates of ineligibility to family-friendly policy support. Dr Matthew Aldrich says “[w]e hear a lot of positive spin about how good maternity leave is in the UK because it’s so long, but actually the low rates of access, combined with low pay and inequitable distribution of leave puts most of the responsibility on women. Maternity leave is up to 12 months long, but women have 12 months and men only have two weeks of statutory leave. There is shared leave available but because of existing gender gaps in pay, that’s going to financially disadvantage families, so take up is low”.
Following the birth of a child, once maternity/paternity leave has been taken families can be faced with problems arranging childcare around their working lives. Childcare is both in demand and highly expensive in the UK and often households need to mitigate the costs of nursery/childminders through reducing their overall working hours. This can be done through taking on a part time role or negotiating flexible working with a current employer. Within businesses that offer flexible working, employees have the right to request it but the employer is under no obligation to accept the request. Research by the team has shown that almost one-third of fathers believe that Flexible Working Arrangements are unavailable to them, compared with one-tenth of mothers. This striking gender difference relates mostly to perceptions of availability of reduced working hours, whereas there are no gender differences in parental perceptions of availability of schedule and location flexibility.
Often when requesting flexible working, employees may be told that their role needs to be adapted to accommodate their flexible working request. This can often mean employees take on less responsibilities than before they had children and lead them towards taking a demotion. Again, this impacts gender equality where women are taking up less senior roles within the workplace and limits their wage progression.
Flexible working is largely taken up by women, who have greater awareness of this type of working arrangement.
What's happening now?
“Our report alerted the EIGE to the fact that there are significant inequalities across the EU.”
Following the research conducted by Dr Matthew Aldrich and Professor Sara Connolly, eligibility for parental leave is now being considered as part of the gender equality index in the EU, bringing greater awareness and challenging current policies within the EU. It’s important to note that eligibility is not entirely focused on employment criteria, assessments are also made based on citizenship and gender. For example, in many EU countries, same sex couples are not eligible for family friendly policies such as parental leave. Professor Sara Connolly explains “[o]ur report alerted the EIGE to the fact that there are significant inequalities across the EU, and what they want to do is build eligibility for parental leave into their measure of work life balance in their Gender Equality Index in the EU. Now they’re going to monitor it on an annual basis and it’s going to be reported as part of gender inequality within the EU.”
Dr Matthew Aldrich says “[t]he EIGE are interested in issues such as women being paid less, and in the case of parental leave it’s not just a question of whether women get access to parental leave, it’s also a question of whether men get access to parental leave. If it’s only women that have access to parental leave, that reinforces gender norms within household/care and work, so actually what they are pushing for is access for fathers as much as mother’s for the care of young children.”