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Home Opinion Breaking down barriers
Women • Equality • Industry

Breaking down barriers

Moira Nelson - 09 April 2015

The challenges that women face in entering the labour market are multifaceted, so must be the policies which tackle them

Expanding access to daycare has not been the panacea for women’s employment that many hoped. Recent reforms in the UK have not significantly boosted women’s employment by relieving parents, especially women, of care responsibilities and thus enabling them to enter paid employment.

The weak impact of daycare expansion has a lot to do with policy design. As Mike Brewer and his colleagues have argued, many of the three- and four-year-olds that received free daycare after the reform were already in some form of daycare prior to it.   Free daycare is also only available for 15 hours per week week, which still limits mothers’ ability to enter paid employment. In addition, the opening hours of daycare centres do not correspond well to the work schedules of many women, as Alison Wolf has explained.

But the weak impact of daycare reform on women’s employment does not mean that daycare is unnecessary. Rather, reforms up to this point have been insufficient to the task at hand.

The challenges that women face in entering the labour market are multifaceted, a situation which implies that the policy approach to address barriers to women’s employment must be similarly multifaceted. The need for such an approach becomes clear when considering the nature of the barriers to women’s employment.

The policy mix in place shapes the employment prospects of women who have not even entered the labour market. If women anticipate a trade-off between pursuing a career and raising children while they are still in school, many will select careers that allow sufficient flexibility. In this way, women limit their labour market opportunities before even entering the labour market and, as a result, policy reforms likely take a number of years to have a full effect.

After women have entered the labour market, the lack of universal daycare for children, especially for those under three, confronts new parents with the challenge of how to organise the care and supervision of their child. Formal daycare for children below three years of age remains extremely expensive. Informal care is widely used, but access remains highly contingent on one’s personal situation. To the extent that women can only find part-time daycare, they are limited to part-time employment which is typically remunerated at a lower rate than full-time work. For other women, difficulties in finding alternative sources of care motivate their decision to leave the labour market completely and stay home with their child.

Whether exiting the labour market for the duration of maternity leave or longer, mothers often face difficulties returning to work for other reasons besides the availability of affordable care. Care-giving continues to be seen as ‘women’s work’ which perpetuates the view that women should be doing the bulk of the unpaid care in the home and, in a related way, that such responsibilities conflict with their role as an employee. The ongoing tendency for fathers not to take career breaks to care for their children reinforces the stigma tied to care-giving as low status, low value-added work.

Improving women’s employment therefore means addressing entrenched biases about the gendered division of labour and the value of care work. As Emma Kinloch has suggested, a clear policy solution is a shift from maternity leave to parental leave and the reservation of some part of parental leave for the second parent.  Increasing incentives for fathers to take leave will help to legitimate temporary breaks from the labour market for the purpose of caring for one’s child. Making such leave income-related can only increase the perception of such work as valuable.

Partly due to the prevalence of part-time work, as Sylvia Walby has noted,  women are often trapped in low-paying jobs and the numbers have only risen since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. Addressing job quality, as defined by wages, working conditions and career mobility would help to incentivise women to remain in the workforce. Possible steps to improve job quality might include increasing the minimum wage and the bargaining power of women in marginalised positions. Improving these women’s bargaining power relies not least on facilitating the process for filing claims of discrimination.

Employers can also take steps to make the workplace a family-friendly environment. While the right to request flexible working time is now a statutory right one in the UK, many workers still do not take advantage of this right or indeed of flexible hours. Employers could take a more proactive role in advising workers about how to make use of flexible working time options. Also, the law could be altered to reduce the six-month period that workers must be employed before being able to apply and strengthen the obligation of employers to approve flexible work arrangements. As it stands, the law specifies nine rather broad reasons why employers can reject flexible working time applications.

Further expansion of affordable daycare, the implementation of income-related parental leave, steps to improve job quality and greater attention to promoting a family-friendly work environment can together make headway in increasing women’s employment. This multifaceted approach could address barriers to women’s employment.

Moira Nelson is senior lecturer at Lund University

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Social Policy and Changing Welfare States.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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