EHRC: What 4500 Parents Say About Flexible Work and Time With the Kids

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission today unveiled the results of its ‘state of the nation’ survey of 4,500 parents by YouGov, asking them about their attitudes to work, care and family life. It finds that modern mothers and fathers defy the Fifties stereotype of stay-at-home mums and breadwinner dads. They aspire to approach parenting as a team effort, shared between mothers, fathers, partners and other carers.

But Britain’s parental leave policies, coupled with old fashioned ways of working in some workplaces, are pushing parents into difficult compromises – and the reality of their arrangements do not always match their aspirations for caring and working in the 21st century.

The polling finds there is widespread support for a modern approach to parental leave and flexible working that enables parents to exercise real choice:

  • Nearly a third of parents feel that they spend too little time with their children – 54 per cent of fathers with children under one stated that they felt they spend too little time with their children
  • Over half (53 per cent) say their current arrangements are ‘by necessity’ rather than choice
  • 47 per cent of parents disagreed when asked whether parents have a choice whether to spend time with their children or at work. 31 per cent agreed
  • 76 per cent of women say they have primary responsibility for their children
  • 60 per cent of parents think fathers should spend more time with their children. Of the 45 per cent of fathers who haven’t taken up current paternity leave arrangements, 88 per cent said they would have liked to, but nearly half said they could not afford to
  • Almost 70 per cent of fathers who took paternity leave say it improved the quality of family life, and 56 per cent say it led to them taking a greater role in caring for their children
  • Only a quarter of women believe that mothers have the same access to good jobs, with 40 per cent of men agreeing
  • Flexibility at work is important or very important to 88 per cent of women and 66 per cent of men
  • 48 per cent of fathers, compared with 36 per cent of mothers, stated that flexible working is not available to them
  • Half of parents think paternity leave should be longer; and a third want it to be better paid
  • Half of men and 54 per cent of women support the option to transfer maternity leave allowance to fathers, and nearly 60 per cent of men and 67 per cent of women support the proposal for four extra weeks leave for fathers.

Turning to flexibility at work, parents reveal that many flexible approaches to work are already working for them, suggesting Britain is reaching a tipping point. However, there is still a need to capitalize on the momentum and promote further change:

  • According to the YouGov survey of parents, 38 per cent have some form of flexibility – and 18 per cent have the opportunity but don’t currently take it
  • 59 per cent of parents achieved their flexibility through informal changes offered with the job or agreed with their employer, without having to make a formal request
  • the most common reason for working flexibly was that the flexible arrangement were already in place when people started their jobs – more so for men (40 per cent) than for women (31 per cent)

The report concludes that although Britain appears on paper to have weaker flexible work legislation than other countries – a right to ‘request’ vs. a right to ‘have’ – in practice Britain has a wider range of alternative ways of working than elsewhere in Europe.

This is often driven by enlightened employers offering jobs more flexibly in the first place, informal arrangements and the right to request. These include not just part-time work, but compressed hours, term-time working to fit with school holidays and job sharing.

But the Commission also found that parents’ awareness of the right to request is low (less than half of parents are aware of the right to request flexible working) and there is a growing divide between workplaces where flexible working is ‘business as usual’ and workplaces where progress has been limited.

According to the report, the challenge now is to keep up the momentum to extend the business benefits of flexible working in the face of a recession; extend awareness of flexible working to the workplaces that have not yet embraced change; and ensure that those working flexibly at work are not pushed into a ghetto of low pay and poor prospects.

While the Commission doesn’t believe the ‘right to request’ should become a ‘right to have’, the Commission is calling for:

  • the right to request flexible working should be extended to everyone, not just parents
  • the 26 week employment eligibility criteria for requesting flexible hours should be repealed
  • the introduction of a formal right to request a return to full-time work after a previous change in working hours
  • the investment in training and guidance for managers to introduce flexibility in the workplace, as well as further efforts to promote flexible working

Nicola Brewer, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said, “Our report indicates some British employers are ahead of the legislation in terms of adopting modern ways of working and we’re heading in the right direction on flexibility. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum in the face of the economic down turn, and extend the benefits to fit us for the upturn.

“But when it comes to modern approaches to parental leave, we may need to try a different route. Today we are proposing one of the most radical changes in our approach to parental leave in a decade. We have spoken to parents, to employers, to unions and to leading academic experts in the field, and we believe that the Working Better report lays out a road-map to 2020 which will put Britain ahead of the curve in terms of modern working practices.

“Flexibility is a tool many British businesses use to unlock talent. Changing the way we approach parental leave could be one way of tackling the gender pay gap. By supporting men to be good fathers as well as good employees, it would also help children do better at school and equips them for the world of work. And it would help families on lower incomes to balance work and the rest of their lives.”

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