According to data released last month, the wage gap in the UK is the narrowest it has been in 20 years. But men still earn an average of 9.1% more than women. And only yesterday, an extensive study into gender equality released by the World Economic Forum ranked the UK 53rd on economic participation and opportunity, largely because of the wage gap. Clearly, more needs to be done.
The case for flexible working is one that has been part of the public conversation for many years now, and the cost-benefit analysis at the centre of it has been played out in the media over and over again. Flexible working, the argument goes, has a positive impact on the wellbeing and long-term productivity of those employees that take advantage of it.
But the benefits of flexible working aren't, and shouldn't, only be measured in pounds and pence. Yes, almost all experiments with flexible working have shown, to some degree, greater productivity, better employee health and a more harmonious office environment. But an often-overlooked benefit of flexible working--one that could have a profound and immediate impact on over half of the working-age population--is that it could play a crucial role in narrowing the gender wage gap.
If, through flexible working arrangements, we can narrow or close the lengthy gap in the careers of many mothers--and in doing so, address the resultant 'wage penalty'--then the gender wage gap will also narrow.
Of course, to claim that childbirth is the only cause of the pay gap would be incorrect, and would ignore the many inherent gender biases that exist both structurally and culturally in society. For the common mindset to change to one in favour of flexible working, three key groups will play a crucial role: the government, employers - and men.
Role of the government
Shared Parental Leave (SPL), which was introduced in the UK in 2015, was welcomed as a progressive action taken by the UK government to help mothers back into the workplace. This guaranteed that both parents could split 50 weeks of parental leave between them, and receive statutory parental pay for 37 of them. Giving fathers the choice to shoulder some of the early parenting responsibilities, and guaranteeing their jobs are there waiting for them afterwards, will allow mothers to go back to work sooner.
Or so the argument goes. However, SPL amounts to just £140 per week--that's less than one third of the average UK weekly income after tax. 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. That's more than two-and-a-half times that of the UK. It can come as no surprise that some families interpret this as a financial disincentive for fathers to take time off of work.
A more equal split in domestic and parenting responsibilities would allow new mothers to return to the workplace if they wished and to maintain momentum in their careers. But for this to happen, there must be a cultural shift--one in which flexible working arrangements are normal and time spent at home by either parent is expected, not granted.
The role of men
Recent research by a large recruitment firm found that a third of men wouldn't take SPL for fear of appearing uncommitted to their job. Worse still were the findings from 2016, which revealed that only one in 100 men in the UK took advantage of their SPL.
Earlier this year, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy commissioned the Taylor Review into modern working practices. The research found, among other things, that 40% of women described flexible working as being "very important" to them, while only 23% of men said the same.
Men are a vital part of the solution because they can encourage their employers to offer flexible working arrangements. If only half of the workforce is promoting a change in culture, then change is far less likely to happen. The more that do it, the more it becomes an accepted and standard part of working life. This will, in turn, allow more mothers to resume their careers after giving birth
A recent study by a recruitment firm found that two-thirds of job candidates believed that a flexible working relationship with their employer would prevent them from achieving their career goals. Evidently, there is an underlying negative assumption about flexible working.
Too often, employers view flexible arrangements with their employees as a kind of concession. But to assume this is to overlook the powerful business case for flexible working. At my last company, we had as many men working part time as we did women. We experienced far less staff turnover than our competitors, greater loyalty, and better performing individuals.
The data agrees. CEBR research also found that the lack of flexible working arrangements for mothers in London alone could represent more than £16bn in lost revenue every year. Clearly, employers are missing a trick.
There's no 'fix-all' solution
It's important to remember that there are many reasons for flexible working, and there many types, too. That's why the very least we can do in the UK is rethink flexible working. Are we working too much or too little? Do we need to be in the office in every day? What jobs could be done remotely?
Flexible working is not the panacea to the underlying issue of gender inequality in the workplace, but it can play a significant part in remedying it. What's needed now is a societal shift, supported by government action, and driven by a change in mentality by both men and employers.