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10 December 2019

What do we want for Christmas? Gender equality in the workplace

Emma Kinloch

EMMA KINLOCH: At this December election, what are the parties offering to improve gender equality?


The Policy Institute is producing a series of comment pieces analysing election manifesto pledges from the different parties across a range of policy areas. Read the full series  here.  

It’s been nearly 100 years since we have had a December election, so what better time to take stock of what we’d like for Christmas: gender equality at work.

The policy elves at Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat HQs have all been frantically putting together a list of treats for us to review, before we head to our local primary school to pick up a pencil, put a cross in a box and keep the wheels of democracy turning. Here’s some of what you might find under your tree this Christmas.

Stocking fillers

Inclusive recruitment

Taking a broad look at tackling bias in workplace culture the Liberal Democrats have pledged to extend the use of name blind recruitment techniques in the public sector and encourage their use in the private sector. These techniques have been shown to widen the pool of applicants and thus have the potential to make workplaces more diverse. A Christmas treat to benefit all.

Maternity and paternity leave

The ghost of Christmas past has come to visit the Labour Party. Their high-profile pledge to increase maternity leave from nine to 12 months is, unfortunately, something of a regressive move. The UK already has one of the world’s most generous provisions of state-funded maternity leave, allowing mothers the chance to bond with their babies ahead of returning to the workforce. However, when looking at this policy offer in conjunction with the significantly smaller paternity leave extension (paid statutory provision to rise from two to four weeks) the signal is clear: women look after the babies, men make the money. The Liberal Democrats have also upped the ante on the paternity leave bidding war, proposing an extension to six weeks. The Conservatives have sat this one out, aside from a vague pledge to “look at ways to make it easier for fathers to take paternity leave”.

At first glance, a recognition that the role of fathers is something to be further supported by the state is a positive move. However, since the introduction of paid paternity leave in 2003, levels of take-up have not been accurately recorded due to employers often not claiming reimbursement for the relatively small payment for the short leave. Fathers are only expected to take a very short leave (if any leave at all) after the birth of a child and mothers are expected to take a significant period out of the workforce. This leads to significant consequences such as the motherhood pay penalty and the corresponding lack of career progression. Shared parental leave policy, where under certain circumstances couples can share their leave between them, was an attempt to neutralise this disparity. Yet, take-up of this policy is low, with only two per cent of eligible parents using the scheme. Research also shows that unless leaves for fathers are not reserved such as the “use it or lose it” daddy quotas in Norway, Sweden and Iceland, take up remains resolutely low. More radical solutions are required to redress this balance than those that are on offer at this general election.

Fathers are only expected to take a very short leave (if any leave at all) after the birth of a child and mothers are expected to take a significant period out of the workforce. This leads to significant consequences such as the motherhood pay penalty and the corresponding lack of career progression."

Emma Kinloch

However, we don’t need to look too far to find what we might be looking for. North of the border the SNP have proposed that the current Shared Parental Leave entitlement be extended by 12 weeks (bringing the total to 64 weeks) where the additional 12 weeks will be reserved solely for the father (or co-parent). This is a clear move to encourage fathers to take more of an active role in the early months of their child’s life and would have the potential to rebalance how mothers and fathers relate to the labour market post-childbirth. However, parental leave policy is an area reserved to Westminster so we would only likely see this change if we got a hung parliament for Christmas and some coalition wrangling took place.

Four-day week

Tucked away on page 62 of the Labour Party Manifesto is a proposal for a radical shift in our working lives – a 32-hour working week. Labour state that working four days a week would give us the “time off to rest, relax and be with family”. Unsurprisingly this policy had been met with a significant amount of scepticism. The implementation of a four-day week would necessitate a fundamental shift in our economy. But the policy is not entirely without precedent – post-war, trade unions ensured that we have a weekend, which had not previously been protected. The implementation of a four-day week, or any policy which is designed to limit working long hours, could have a striking gendered effect. In countries with long hours working cultures, men are more likely to work full-time and women part-time or leave the labour market all together. We also know when women are in part-time employment their career progression is slower and their pay is lower. With everyone working shorter hours the drive to work part-time, often associated with the need to balance work with caring responsibilities, would be reduced. However, it is not only a four-day week that would achieve these ends. Gender equality in the workplace would be enhanced by giving greater recognition to part-time workers and by mainstreaming flexible working options.

National Living Wage increase

The National Living Wage is taking centre stage in this election. The Conservatives are pledging to continue raising the level and will be including workers aged 21 and above in this move (projected to reach £10.50 per hour by 2024 according to their estimates). Meanwhile, the Labour Party have committed to a National Living Wage set at £10 by 2020 for workers of all ages. Whilst this policy does not tackle the causes of gender inequality, it is a crucial policy to protect those in low-paid work, who are more likely to be women. Indeed according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies women will benefit more from these plans than their male counterparts, with over 30 per cent of female workers being captured by Labour’s policy and over 20 per cent under the Conservatives (compared to under 20 per cent of male workers benefiting under Labour and just over 10 per cent captured by the Conservatives’ plans).

Policies trickier to unwrap

Women at the top

Jumping from those at the bottom end of the pay scale to those at the top, the Liberal Democrats are pledging to “push” for 40 per cent of FTSE 350 board members to be women (this builds on the current target set by the Hampton Alexander review of 33% by 2020). This offering requires a bit of unpacking. There is no date given for achieving this target completion, but assuming it is by the end of the parliament it is an ambitious target given the previous pace of change. No detail is given on how this shift will be “pushed” for and given there is a very mixed evidence base on the impact of gender diversity on boards it may not be the most efficient use of resources.

And the…lump of coal

Unconscious bias training

The Liberal Democrats have certainly attempted to look at the issue of diversity in the workplace in the round. However, one of their key policies is to offer free unconscious bias training to public sector staff and to external contractors as a condition of receiving public funds. Whilst millions are spent on unconscious bias training the world over, research has shown it is at best ineffective and at worst simply primes the biases of those taking the course. Santa should chuck this one off his sleigh.

Overall, those of us that want to see a radical shift in gender equality at work may be disappointed with what we get for Christmas in this policy offering, but there are still some treats on offer that will contribute to incremental change in the next parliament.

Emma Kinloch is Research and Projects Associate at the Global Institute for Women's Leadership, King's College London.