I am flabbergasted. I really am. Not, you understand, in a bad way. Oh no, this is all good. What’s the cause of my joy? Of all things, it is a new report published by the Women and Equalities Select Committee into workplace practices and how they impact on working fathers.
To cut a long story short, the Committee, arguably one of the most powerful in Westminster, has recognised that workplace culture prohibits men from being active, hands-on fathers. In other words, men are struggling to have it all in a similar way to women.
For me, this is a very personal thing. I became a dad back in 2009. Following a glorious, month-long spell of paternity leave, I returned to full-time work.
My working life, however, was never the same again. I felt utterly miserable when I went back to my job, leaving my wife and child at home.
Over the following months I got over this, but I just found that balancing work and family life was impossible. My job description was changed so I ended up travelling around the UK.
Although my work hours had been informally changed so I could do nursery pick ups and drop offs, I began receiving complaints, among other things, that I wasn’t attending meetings at 4.30pm in the afternoon.
There were other similar issues and so I eventually gave up and left, initially taking on a part-time job. Even then work and family life was a tricky balance and so I left the workforce altogether taking the best part of 15 years of media industry experience with me.
I was quite happy to be a stay at home dad. My wife was more than happy to concentrate on her career.
This is an important point to make. We mustn’t assume that women want to be carers and stay at home parents. Individuals like my wife would rather work.
Getting back to my story, this is broadly how my family has worked ever since. Our youngest daughter, Izzy, started school back in September so these days I make some money blogging and doing freelance work, but I fit it around school hours and remain the stay at home parent.
Having removed myself from the workforce, I have no intention of returning. The labour, experience and talent I used to provide for others I instead use to work directly for myself. I don’t see that changing, certainly not in the short to medium term.
That’s my story, but what of this report from the Women and Equalities Select Committee? The Committee’s chair, Maria Miller MP has summarised it thus:
“The evidence is clear - an increasing number of fathers want to take a more equal share of childcare when their children are young but current policies do not support them in doing so. There is a historical lack of support for men in this area, and negative cultural assumptions about gender roles persist.”
So what is the committee proposing? What does it hope will bring about the required change?
It has recommended four changes. It is hoped these will lead to a shift in working culture.
Firstly, paternity pay should be paid at 90% of man’s salary (capped for high earners). At present, men often receive statutory minimum payments and simply cannot afford to take anything more than the basic two weeks paid paternity leave. For low earners, taking two weeks isn’t feasible because the family needs their full-time income.
Second on the list: The introduction of a paternity allowance for self-employed men so they could take some time off work following the arrival of a child. Agency workers should also get similar benefits to full-time employees.
Another recommendation considers flexible working patterns. You know when you see a job advert saying flexible working will be considered after you’ve been in post for X amount of time? Well, the Committee has called on the Government to change the law immediately so that jobs are advertised as flexible from day one.
Finally, the Committee has proposed partially replacing the Shared Parental Leave system with a period of 12 weeks standalone leave for the father. If I’m honest, this causes me some pain.
I’m all for standalone leave for dad. Virtually every other nation with a shared parental leave system has had to go down this route. It’s generally the only way you can force employers to accept men will take extended leave following the arrival of a baby. When it works well, such as in Iceland and Denmark, the positive impact on gender equality both at home and in the workplace for men and women is immense.
I don’t quite understand why the Committee is proposing we deviate from a well-trodden route that has proven successful elsewhere. It seems like we’re giving up on Shared Parental Leave less than four years after it was introduced. While the intention is clearly good, it just seems a little unnecessary to rewrite the rules so soon.
I may have misgivings over that final point. Even so, I am delighted that it’s been recognised shared parental leave needs to change.
Would these changes have enabled me to stay in the workforce? I can’t honestly answer that question but if implemented, I think they will have a positive impact on working culture. It is the UK’s working culture that needs to change.
There’s one other aspect to all this: Brexit. If we’re going to have fewer migrant workers in the UK, workplace culture may have to change to give everyone maximum opportunity to work. That will only happen if workplace policies enable mums and dads to work and balance their family needs with loyalty to their employer.
In many respects, I think society has moved on. I see dads on the school run, I used to see them at nursery, time and again I hear men bemoaning the fact they don’t spend as much time with their kids as they’d like to.
While society has moved on, I’m not sure working culture has. Gender roles seem very entrenched. The Women and Equalities Select Committee has done a great job in highlighting what needs to be done. We now need to see action to make it happen.