Most men today agree that women should have equal chances as men to progress in their career, however they often underestimate their own role in making this possible. Men who really care about equality should act on their belief by taking up their fair share of care and household work to level the playing field for women.
One obvious barrier that continues to prevent women from living up to their ambition and potential is the disproportional amount of unpaid work they carry out. UN Women in 2016 estimated that globally, women still carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men. The combination of these unpaid activities (though unrightfully regarded as less valuable since the segregation of work and home) was initially a full-time occupation. Women whom today engage in full-time employment usually continue to carry out a disproportionate share of these activities, and often find themselves competing with men who carry much less responsibility at home.
In practise women consequently more often than men take career breaks to nurture a new-born, request a day of leave to look after a sick child or need to run of from a meeting to pick up the kids. They also tend to miss out on informal work-related activities where valuable information is exchanged, partnerships are established or sponsor-sponsee relationships are founded. To truly offer equal chances for women to progress in their career, the playing field needs to be levelled, and caring responsibilities need to be divided much more equally. And while many modern men increasingly take up household work, others are yet to follow and many with good intentions have barriers ahead to get as far as reaching their equal share.
An obvious care task that remains highly dominated by women is the care for children and it is all to easy to blame biology. While it’s hard to argue with the role of the woman in carrying and breastfeeding a baby, exclusive breastfeeding is as low as 12% for a four-months old baby in the UK at which point therefore, dad can easily pitch in. However, the UK government and UK employers are not making it very easy for dad to do so. Shared parental leave was introduced in 2015 in the UK but is not equal for women and men. The policy is designed in a way that the father does not have his own entitlement but rather needs to take part of the mother’s leave. In addition, while women get compensated 6 weeks at 90% of their salary and 33 weeks at £141 a week, men by default get just 2 weeks at £141 a week; speaking of gender pay gap.
It is rather surprising that the UK government hasn’t done any efforts to improve this policy yet, as only 2% uptake was reached in the first three years. This number is dire especially when compared to statistics for Iceland where uptake of shared parental is as high as 91%. In addition, plenty of information is available on policies that do work. The key principles are, not surprisingly, based on equality. Uptake has soared where fathers have individual entitlement that is compensated in the same way as mothers’, like in Germany, Sweden and Iceland, and where cash or time bonuses are associated with equal division of parental leave between the parents.
While the UK government seems reluctant to listen to the evidence, some UK based companies have picked up on it independently. Aviva UK announced already in 2017 a company policy to offer men and women equal parental leave. One year on, the company reported that 67% of eligible fathers took six months off (at full basic pay) to take care of their newborn child. Where policies are favourable and fathers are taking up care responsibilities, female labour force participation is increasing, divorce rates are going down and children’s life satisfaction is increasing. Both parents’ wellbeing in addition has been shown to increase, so it seems that entire families, and arguably all members of society, are benefiting.
Until the UK Government learns from the evidence, and from others, companies can start to implement their own fair policies as Aviva did, and where women do still take on more of the childcare work, small changes, like putting practises in place to restrict key meetings to core hours, can already go a long way. And in any case men who truly care about gender equality can make sure they do their fair share of household work; because caring is sharing.
First featured in IQ Business Magazine in June 2019