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How can we help UK families become more gender-equal?

Today we publish the 2016 edition of our Fairness in Families Index #fairnessinfamilies, which uses a basket of measures to compare developed countries’ progress towards gender equality. Overall, the UK comes 12th out of 22 countries; a drop of three places since 2010.

The top five countries in the 2016 index are all Scandinavian, with Sweden taking the top spot. Other countries more gender-equal than the UK include France, Italy, New Zealand and Portugal. The most dramatic finding is that UK mums and dads are the worst in developed world at sharing their childcare responsibilities. So this Father’s Day (19 June), British men will spend an average of 24 minutes caring for children for every hour done by women. The UK was 15th out of 15 countries for which there was data for this indicator; in Portugal, where the ratio is highest, men do 60% more childcare: 39 minutes for every hour done by women.

Slightly better news is that we’re better at sharing housework than childcare: British men do 34 minutes of housework and cooking for every hour done by women, placing us 5th in the table (the UK was 5th out of 15 countries for this indicator). In Denmark, which leads on this indicator, men do 44 minutes for every hour done by women.

But what’s crystal clear is that there’s still a long way to go if the UK is serious about levelling the playing field for men and women in the workplace and at home. And when one looks at some of the other key indicators, it’s not hard to see why.

Our parenting leave system is still only the 11th most equal (out of 21 countries for this indicator), despite the introduction of shared parental leave in April 2015.

Our gender pay gap – which leaves British women earning an average of 17.4% less than men in similar full-time jobs – places us 15th out of the 22 countries measured. In 1st-placed New Zealand, the gap is 5.6%.

And it’s still the case that relatively few men in the UK work part-time. They make up only 25.8% of the part-time workforce, leaving the UK 16th out of 21 countries measured for this indicator. Portugal tops the table, with men making up 42.1% of the part-time workforce. Part-time working is strongly associated with undertaking caring responsibilities at home.

Access our infographic, highlighting the key findings of the report, and the Fairness in Families Index summary and full report, via the resources section of our website.

Why does this all matter?

It matters because evidence shows that children with positively involved fathers do much better, in a huge variety of ways. Check out our Bringing Fathers In resources (also available via the resources section of our website), including research summaries, for more details. Couples are also more likely to stay together if they can find ways of sharing their caring and earning responsibilities. That’s all in addition to the gender equality argument, of course.

So - what is to be done?

Well firstly, there’s clear evidence from around the world that the ideal parenting leave design includes a substantial period (minimum three months) of non-transferable well paid leave for fathers, to be taken in the first year – with mothers having no more than six months of well-paid leave available to them in that first year.

We know that this would result in mothers spending less time out of the workforce (thus countering much of the discrimination they now face from employers) and would establish strong, positive attachments between fathers, as well as mothers, and their infants. As care patterns are established in the first year, and as fathers who undertake substantial care during that time tend to remain highly engaged once they return to work, this would set the scene for greater gender equality during that first year, and into the future. This is what happens in Iceland, the country with probably the world’s most gender-equal parenting leave design.

Despite the introduction of shared parental leave in 2015, the UK is a very long way from this model. The ideal to work towards would be six months’ non-transferable, well-paid leave for the mother, and the same for the father. As an interim step, paying paternity leave at 90% of salary (capped) and introducing a similarly well-paid use-it-or-lose-it ‘daddy month’ might be a step in the right direction.

But sorting out parenting leave alone – crucial as that is – will not be enough.

So secondly, the UK also needs to strengthen its efforts to reduce the gender pay gap. Until men and women can be confident of finding jobs that pay the same rate, it will remain too easy for couples to slip into the ‘traditional’ model where the man brings home more of the bacon and the woman does the lion’s share of the childcare, out of economic pressure rather than free choice.

We agree with the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee’s recent Gender Pay Gap report that we should be obliging employers to offer all jobs on the basis that they can be worked flexibly unless they can demonstrate an immediate and continuing business case against doing so; and that the government should extend its requirement for UK companies to publish data about their gender pay gap to all firms employing more than 150 staff, from April 2018.

And thirdly, we also need family services that view men and women as equally capable of, and responsible for, bringing up children. The UK’s public services – maternity and early years services, schools and social workers – have been and remain almost entirely mother-centric, and as a result consistently fail to support greater sharing by mums and dads.

That’s why we’re calling on the government to require early years, schools, social work and maternity services to publish data on their engagement with fathers; and be inspected on this by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission.

None of these changes will, individually or together, lead to a gender-equal Britain overnight. But all the evidence suggests that they could make a huge difference. FIFI shows that since 2010, other countries have made much better progress towards gender-equality. Let’s make sure that when the next FIFI is published, we’re heading in the right direction.



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