30/03/2017 13:01 BST | Updated 31/03/2018 06:12 BST

Do We Focus On The Wrong Thing When Encouraging Parents Back To Work?

Much was made of the government's decision to pledge £5m to 'returnship' schemes in the Spring Budget earlier this month. Most agreed that this kind of government funding was long overdue, while others claimed that £5m is a meagre amount to pledge in tackling such a pervasive and damaging issue as the wage penalty for returning mothers.

But to focus on returnships as a solution is to miss the point entirely. In fact, if the real issues were tackled head on, the need for returnships would be less substantial than it is now.

What is really needed is a more equal split of domestic and parenting responsibilities, therefore allowing both parents to return to the workplace if they wish and to maintain momentum in their careers.

But two things are required in order for this to happen: greater support from the state, and a societal shift in mind set - mainly by men - to push for flexible working hours for both parents.

The uphill struggle

To put the challenges that returning parents face into context, take the findings of accountancy firm PwC's report into women 'returners'. The study found that nearly two thirds (65%) of returning professional women work below their potential salary or level of seniority. This clearly has financial consequences, but also emotional ones. If you are giving up time with your children for unrewarding work then it naturally feels like more of a sacrifice, and you are more likely to give up.

The same report also found that 76% of professional women on career breaks want to return to work. The desire is clearly there, but a reality that involves underpayment and low promotion prospects is hardly an incentive for returning parents.

While the PwC report does offer valuable recommendations for employers, the reality is that the pace of change is very slow. The gender wage gap in the UK is still a massive 19.5%, and in the 15 years from 2000 to 2015, it fell by only 7.2 percentage points.

A couple only has so much capacity for domestic and workplace activity, and when children enter the equation, the domestic requirements only increase. When a mother returns to work after a career break, those household demands don't just disappear. So, something has to give: but what?

The UK is lagging woefully behind other developed countries with parental leave

This is where the state should play a much more significant role. In the UK, statutory paternity leave is a paltry two weeks, and in monetary terms equates to just over a quarter of the average UK income. While schemes like Shared Parental Leave now mean longer leave is available, most couples will find it near impossible to live off of it.

Other countries put the UK to shame in this respect. Germany allows new fathers up to nine weeks off work at nearly £360 per week: more than two-and-a-half times that of the UK. One way or another, the UK must up its game in with paternal leave. Be it a mandated extension to paternal leave and pay, or a state subsidy to bring us in line with our more forward-thinking neighbours, change must take place if we are to see a shift in the balance of domestic responsibilities between parents, allowing mothers to balance their careers with work more meaningfully.

The evidence is already there to prove that measures like this would be heavily utilised by second parents, too. In Quebec, when additional parental leave was given to fathers, the uptake went from 22% in 2004 to 69% in 2006. In Iceland, uptake shot up to 95% when allowances were increased in 2000. And when new paternity measures were introduced in Germany in 2007, uptake grew from 3.3% of eligible fathers to 29.3% in five years.

But accepting paid, paternal leave is a distance from proactively challenging an employer to offer a more flexible working arrangements for new parents, and this is where fathers must accept that they have a role to play in fixing the problem. Far from being a passenger in the parenting journey, men can become a big part of the solution to the gender pay gap if they push for greater flexibility in working hours.

Men can and should be part of the solution

I feel very fortunate that my husband and I have chosen to be flexible. He took time off and then worked part time when we first had children, and I was working full time growing my first company. Now we balance it so we can both achieve what we want professionally, and have more family time.

But unfortunately, my case is a rare exception in an otherwise ingrained culture of fathers playing the traditional role of breadwinner and working long hours. According to the 2017 Modern Families Index, seven in 10 UK fathers wish they had greater flexibility in their working hours, to accommodate tasks such as taking their children to and from school. Admirable, but then bear in mind that the same report found that only 69% of fathers said they "would consider their childcare arrangements before they took a new job or promotion".

In my previous company, we had as many men working part time as women, and in most cases their wives worked as much as they did. I think it was no coincidence that as employers, we experienced far less staff turnover than our competitors, greater loyalty, and better performing individuals.

Focus on what is right for you

In Gaby Hinsliff's brilliant book 'Half a Wife', she talks about doing things differently, redefining success, and also acknowledging the vital role that fathers can play in helping to redress the balance for mothers whose work-life relationship has been affected by parenthood.

To me, that means making decisions as a family around how much both partners work. This can also change over time as children grow and professional aspirations change. If people focus on what is right for their family, rather than automatically conforming to societal norms or corporate pressure, then the chances of achieving a balance that works is much greater.

That's not to downplay how difficult it can be: balancing professional life and bringing up children is tough. I don't believe that everybody can 'have it all', and it is naïve to expect to not have to make sacrifices. But I do believe that by considering what the ideal solution for your family would be, and having both parents strive to make that happen, families will begin to enjoy the freedom and happiness that should be commonplace but, sadly, is still not.