What the gender equality duty means for maternity services
The new Gender Equality Duty (Equality Act 2006), effective from April 2007, requires all public authorities, including those commissioning maternity services, to have “due regard” to the need to “promote” equality of opportunity between men and women.
“Promoting” means being active and not passive: the statutory equality body and inspectorates will look for action and positive change as evidence of compliance. “Having due regard” means prioritising attention in proportion to its relevance – see the box below for how gender equality applies to maternity services.
Gender equality does not require men and women to receive the same service – there are circumstances, among which maternity is probably the most extreme example, where needs are different. But gender equality does mean that neither women nor men should be excluded from support they need. The Gender Equality Duty requires public authorities “proactively to address the individual needs of women and men in all their functions” (to quote the official guidance on the Duty published by the Equal Opportunities Commission – and available on www.eoc.org.uk).
Around the birth, mothers and fathers have different needs in some ways (for example at childbirth one parent is giving birth and the other is normally present and expected to be informed and helpful) and similar needs in other ways (for example both are facing a life-changing experience in the transition to parenthood).
Under the law, bodies that commission maternity related services, like other public services, need to publish an overall scheme and action plan for promoting gender equality, covering all areas where gender equality issues are deemed to be relevant.
More particularly, at the point of commissioning any service, a gender impact assessment is required, assessing the differential impact of the service on women and men. This will assess if there is evidence of different needs between women and men and whether both women and men’s needs are being met. It will also look at the gender norms and stereotypes that are being assumed.
Compliance includes gathering information on how services impact on women and men respectively and consulting with women and men who use services, in ways they find accessible.
Why the Gender Equality Duty is important for maternity services
The purposes of the Gender Equality Duty are to promote a better understanding by services of the different needs of women and men, to promote better quality of services, to achieve more effective targeting of resources, and to achieve better results and greater confidence in public services.
The Duty requires that public authorities prioritise actions that result in significant benefits to gender equality (paragraph 2.26 of the guidance).
The biggest single driver of the pay gap and inequalities faced by women in the workplace is the fact that women do more care of children and domestic work than men – and research shows that maternity services have a key role in encouraging men to expand their role (26).
Why the Gender Equality Duty is relevant to maternity services
The Duty requires that public authorities prioritise actions that result in significant benefits to gender equality (2.26).
• The biggest single driver of the pay gap and inequalities faced by women in the workplace is the fact that women do more care of children and domestic work than men.
• Research shows that maternity services have a key role in encouraging men to expand their role. The more support and encouragement expectant fathers receive, the more likely they are to be involved with caring for their children later. The more fathers are involved in everyday care during the first year, the more likely they are to remain involved throughout the child’s life. So if maternity services support both parents in the transition to parenthood, they are promoting equality for both women and men.
• Research at the University of Bristol showed some fathers – particularly young and/or black fathers – experience significant barriers to obtaining support within maternity services. A pilot project carried out by Fathers Direct in London found the same. So there is evidence that some services are not meeting needs because of gendered and racial assumptions and that these are disproportionately affecting vulnerable groups, such as young families and minority ethnic groups.
• Fathers are more involved in caring for babies than in previous generations, and both parents want fathers to be even more involved. The needs of mothers and fathers in the transition to parenthood are now more equal than in the past. Being responsive to needs and aspirations means that maternity services need to engage with both parents in relation to the role of caring for babies and children.
For all the references in this document, go to our Research Report (published online in April 2007) at http://www.fatherhoodinstitute.org/index.php?id=0&cID=586.
For more about the Gender Equality Duty go to http://www.eoc.org.uk/default.aspx?page=15016.