Who's afraid of the nappy ceiling?

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Forget the glass ceiling, Stylist columnist Lucy Mangan reveals what’s really holding women back in the workplace

"It’s nice to be able to say that something is going right for once!” says Peter Grigg, director of research and policy at the Family and Parenting Institute, sounding both relieved and ever-so-slightly gobsmacked.

He is talking about the new proposals announced by the government last week to extend flexible working rights to all employees, not just parents, and to change the rules regarding maternity and paternity leave. From 2015, mothers and fathers will be able to divide the 52 weeks up between themselves and take turns at home and at work as they see fit (after the first two weeks, which is still ring-fenced for the mother to allow her to ‘recover’ – meaning sit down without yelping in agony and start holding her wee in long enough to get to the loo in time. The government may hold with euphemism in these matters, but I do not). No longer does each parent’s leave have to be taken in one solid block.

You can see why any increase in rights and flexibility when it comes to the vexed question of making childbearing compatible with a working life for women is welcome; because at the moment – baby (and mother), it is cold outside.

The stark truth of working life is that the biggest factor holding women back from receiving salary parity and boardroom positions is children. The nappy ceiling has replaced the glass ceiling. The fact that it is (so far – come ON, science) only women who give birth puts us at a disadvantage. Antenatal hospital appointments, maternity leave and childcare all fall at our feet. Having a baby almost always requires that careers be put on hold. And it has a catastrophic effect on women's wages. According to the Office of National Statistics, the pay gap between men and women who have no children is 8%. If those men and women produce four children, that pay gap rockets to 35.5%.That is the nappy ceiling. Anecdotally, things are bad.

Anecdotally, things are bad. “One woman rang our helpline,” says Elizabeth Gardiner, head of policy for work-life balance campaigning charity Working Families, “because she had handed in her MAT B1 form [the document you have to give your employer to confirm your pregnancy and relevant dates – in order to qualify for maternity pay] to her boss and the very next time she saw him, he handed over her P45.” She estimates that around 12% of calls to their employment rights helpline involve maternity discrimination. You do not even need to have announced your pregnancy before discrimination begins. “If you’re recently married or the right age and off or late several mornings [with morning sickness] in a row, or look a bit cr*p – or ‘blooming’ – people in the office put two and two together. Mine stopped bringing me new work long before I said anything,” says a friend who recently gave birth.

Reality Check

Other friends who have had babies in recently have told me – often tearfully – of being frozen out by colleagues, sidelined in, or simply not invited to meetings, consultations, and drinks after work. One had her contract and income cut by a third while she was away (“I was too ill and emotional after the birth to fight it,” she says) and everyone – everyone – who has gone part-time is effectively still doing a full-time job (by finishing tasks in the evenings and at weekends) for less money. Most of them are wondering whether to downshift and find less skilled, worse paid jobs that would at least have fixed hours. And these are people fortunate enough to be (by and large) in professional jobs.

If you are lower down the socioeconomic scale and working shifts or on a zero-hours contract, you may find yourself not qualifying for any kind of maternity/ paternity leave or pay at all. If you don’t want to remain childless (or child-free as some call it, and as the mother of an 18 month old I can see why), how can you begin to break through it?

One action that would help us all enormously would be to stop looking at the spectacular high-fliers like Nicola Horlick, who combined six children with an extraordinary career as a successful investment fund manager and Marissa Mayer, recently hired as CEO of Yahoo! while she was pregnant (who will doubtless be happily similarly unimpeded professionally by her maternal status) as any kind of proof that women can have it all if they just try hard enough. Those with jobs that allow them to hire nannies, cooks, cleaners and fulfil every other role most women have to manage themselves are among the fortunate few, not helpful role models, whatever certain sections of the media would like us to believe.

Flexible working for all will stop it being seen as something only granted to ‘breeders’

The more common experience is the one revealed by recent research by uSwitch – it showed that a third of new mothers get into debt due to maternity leave pay (pegged at 90% of gross average weekly earnings for the first six weeks and the same again for the next 33 or £135.45 per week – either way it works out at far less than minimum wage) and one in 10 go back early because of money worries. When they do go back, of course, childcare costs have to be factored in.

One friend of mine is working – full time – simply to keep her job open, since literally every penny of her net income is eaten up by nursery payments. But those who do qualify for maternity leave and pay find themselves being damned if they take the full entitlement (by debt and falling ever further down the career ladder) and damned if they don’t (by resentful colleagues and punitive childcare costs). How can this be, here, now, in Britain 2012? Part of the problem is that corporate and political change always lags behind social change.

“Employers have been slow to recognise that we do family differently from 50 years ago,” says Dr Caroline Gatrell, an expert in the sociologies of work, family and health at Lancaster University Management School. “Nowadays, not everyone is in a couple, or heterosexual and nor is the man always the main breadwinner.” There is also, she says, a deeply ingrained belief that women who have children become less focused on their jobs, despite there being far less evidence for this than there is for children making people more motivated. It’s a belief that springs more from a still-prevalent, if covert, view that women are actually flighty little things not quite suited to the world of business rather than from fact. Yes, women's maternal urge and ability to breastfeed make work a tricky prospect with a newborn, but it can be done.

Antediluvian prejudices, it seems, die hard. Employers also argue that parental leave and embracing flexible working patterns causes additional costs and leads to chaos. This stands up only if you ignore two important factors. First, that businesses claim over 92% of maternity pay back from the government, and that small businesses can claim over 100% of it back in order to cover administrative costs too. What I wouldn’t give to be able to claim back the costs of doing my job and make a little profit too. It would suddenly become ridiculous NOT to buy my much-longed for iPad. Second, you must ignore the costs incurred by the alternative – the loss of money spent on training those women who then disappear from the workforce, the cost of recruiting and training replacements and the demoralisation and general drop in productivity that occurs in firms known not to take care of their employees. The government’s own analysis is that the new changes will save £222.5m in increased output and reduced sickness, absenteeism and recruitment costs. That’s an expensive lot of ignoring going on.

There is also a belief that women who have children become less focused

Paying the Cost

Then there are people – employers and employees alike – who argue that those who choose to bear children should bear the cost of their choice, personally and in full. In which case, of course, we should all be at liberty to pay only the proportion of our taxes that we alone are likely to benefit from. I don’t smoke, drive, fly and barely drink so I’d like a good chunk of cash back from all those who do and benefit from my deducted-at-source largesse. Of course this would be insane. There’s a lot wrong with the tax system, no doubt about that, but the principle of cross-subsidy isn’t one of them. All of which means that the proposed changes have much to recommend them. They will save money and give women greater freedom and an ability to keep in greater touch with work and at least put a brake on any slide down the career ladder.

It will allow men – who also suffer in the workplace if they are away too long, especially for something as ‘unmanly’ as childcare – to do likewise and can only help foster gender equality at home as well as in the office. And perhaps more importantly, an extension of flexible working to all means it will stop being seen as something special only granted to ‘breeders’ and reduce the kind of hostility that itself cultivates the myriad types of discrimination women with children currently face.

The Family and Parenting Institute and Working Families say there are a number of other measures that can still be taken – it would help to extend paternity leave specifically. “Our research shows that men are only really likely to take it up in significant numbers if it’s very clearly labelled as being for them and on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis,” says Gardiner. It would also be a good idea to increase maternity pay so that women aren’t forced back to work before their leave is up, and to allow men and women to work part-time while still receiving part of their parental pay rather than having to choose between one or the other.

Above all, they say, it would be helpful if the government could stop implementing cuts that disproportionately affect women – to Sure Start children’s centres, child benefit, health in pregnancy grants, child tax credits, libraries that provide free books and entertainment. But still, the changes in themselves are welcome. “Charities like ours can’t retire and go home after this news,” says Grigg, “but it’s a good start.”

Picture credit: Rex Features

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