Leave Entitlements and Gender Equity

15 March 2005

Speech by Duncan Fisher, Equal Opportunities Commissioner, EOC seminar presentation Sept 2003

I would like to reflect on some of the perceptions we have about parenting roles and to challenge some of the ways in which the debate about equality is framed.

One of the key problems we face is that our society is largely blind to the role of men in caring. Institutions, when they see a man, simply do not see an actual or potential carer standing before them. Employers see men as full-time employees who thankfully will not become pregnant and will not take months and months off work. When a man is registered into prison or a young man into a youth offending team, he is not even asked whether he is a father. When parents register with a maternity service, the existing parenting status of the father is not enquired about. There are teenage pregnancy programmes up and down the country that do not even register the name of the partners of the teenage mothers and the fathers of their children. And so on, across every sector, without exception.

At a recent seminar at No.10 on this subject, one of the first recommendations was simply that, when recording details of service users, the parenting status of men should be recorded, in the same way that the parenting role of women routinely is.

Another example, closer to the subject of discussion today. How often do I listen to the public debate about childcare – what is better for children, to be looked after by mum or by professional carers? Or, what is better for children, professional care or care by mum’s “friends and family”? Where are fathers in this debate? They have become entirely invisible. What happened to the research findings that showed fathers doing more childcare in dual earner families than all other kinds of care put together? I recall reactions to the EOC’s recent research that showed fathers doing 30% of all parental care in dual earner households – reactions ranged from blank disbelief to the idea that somehow the 30% of the care being done by the fathers must be qualitatively different from the 70% of care being one by mothers. (The measures in the research for mothers and fathers were, in fact, identical.) So strong is the belief that fathers are irrelevant that this statistic becomes simply impossible to believe – and, indeed, it has been almost entirely ignored in the public debate since it was published. So the debate continues within a paradigm that places the entire responsibility of child care on mothers, along with the entire guilt about the possibility that if mum is not doing the caring the child will be permanently scarred. This manner of debate always amazes me – who benefits from it?

By making this argument, I am well aware of how my points may be interpreted. I am a man – a father – sticking up for his own kind. As a man, I am pleading the case for men, pointing out that “we are victims too”. And so I enter a competition with women about how is the most put upon, men or women.

It is this perception that annoys me more than anything! I think the idea that men should stick up for men and women for women is one of the most dangerous beliefs of all. I do not sit here representing the needs of men: please hear this, because it is very important to me personally – I am not here as a representative of fathers. Everything I am saying is absolutely in the best interests of women, and that motivates me just as much as anything. I am a father of two daughters – their futures are very much dependent on how this public debate pans out – they are my ultimate concern. I am also married to a woman whose own opportunities I care about passionately.

I believe the reality is absolutely the opposite. When I listen to the childcare debate, I regard myself a champion of opportunities for women, I believe more so than many of the women in the debate. I believe that the assumption that women should be the main carers of children is the fundamental barrier to the further advancement of women in work and in public life – not just one barrier, the main one.

I think the real faultline is between, on the one hand, those who believe that mothers should stay at home and fathers should work – a view passionately held by many men and women – and, on the other hand, those who believe that parents who want to do things differently should have the choice to do so.

Currently, these choices are limited. Take leave entitlements. The difference in entitlements for mothers and fathers in the first year after the birth is, I believe, more extreme in this country than almost any other country in the world. International comparisons have suggested that it is the difference in leave entitlements, not their actual tale-up, that drives gender roles in families. The system of entitlements we currently have rigorously underpins traditional gender-divided role specialisation in the first year – mothers remain out of work while fathers work more to make ends meet. He has to lose his job security if she wants to hand over care to him. He rises up the career path, she goes down; their earning potential diverges further, ready for the second child, where the cycle perpetuates itself again. In this scenario, professional childcare becomes the only way out.

This is why work flexibility, applied equally to men and women is of such importance, throughout the child’s life. A little bit of flexibility can help enormously in expanding the role of both parents in the care of the child – work flexibility for men is of primary interest to women, just as flexibility for women is of primary interest to men.

I have often asked how the current situation came about, since I was not engaged in the discussions at the time. One answer I have been given is that women wanted longer leave entitlements and did not want to share any of it with men, and if men want them, they should lobby for them. There are two things wrong with this argument. First, there is no suggestion of making women reduce their maternity leave by having to share it with men – this is based on the assumption that any gain for men must necessarily be a loss to women. The issue is, if women want to go back to work, they can hand care over to the father without him having to lose his job. Second, this argument falls into the trap of believing that women’s and men’s interests are independent. The reality is that the current situation is not at all good for women and needs to be changed, irrespective of the needs of children and the aspirations of fathers.

I regard the current state of affairs as a tactical transitional phase, brought about by the concerns and interests of business, whose views cannot pragmatically be ignored. Employers desperately do not want men to start taking time off for looking after kids as well as women. A softly, softly approach is needed, on step at a time, even if this means the path takes us into positions of deep illogicality.

To conclude, I believe we have to start redefining what “equal opportunity” refers to – it does not just refer to opportunities in the workplace and in public life. Caring for children is an opportunity too. As far as I know, the DTI paper, Balancing Work and Family Life, is unique among Government documents, in referring to caring for children as an opportunity for men – in this it introduces a radical new idea, not yet perceived by most of the rest of Government.

I would like to see a new front opened up in the gender debate – a strong coalition of men and women who understand that expanding opportunities for men in the home and for women in the workplace are inextricably linked, and who advocate both with equal urgency, on behalf of both men and women – and who therefore argue robustly for the ‘next steps’ in the path towards gender equality: equity in the leave entitlements for men and women.