Women and the coalition government

Could working mothers be the ultimate beneficiaries of the coalition government’s policies and recent emergency Budget? Will the desire to create greater flexibility in the labour market make the male-dominated breadwinner model of working nine to five a thing of the past? While this view obviously involves looking at the longer term impact of labour market changes, a combination of the coalition’s policies may push flexible working into the mainstream of working life.

Of course to be meaningful, quality flexible working is essential, rather than more low-paid jobs in cleaning, catering and care. Good quality flexible working would enormously improve the choice of working mothers who struggle to combine home life with a traditional model, which doesn’t take school hours into account. There is obviously a demand for flexible jobs if recruitment websites like Workingmums.co.uk are anything to go by. With almost 90,000 applicants registered on the site, it seems unlikely that the market alone will respond to this demand and supply the roles.

Quality flexible working should also be distinguished from the temporary reduced hours arrangements introduced by a number of private sector employers in response to the recession. A government report published in March 2010 was ambivalent about a positive link between the recession and quality part-time work.

Flexible working proposals

The new government is certainly keen to promote flexible working, although its interest appears to be driven by the cost savings achieved by getting more people from welfare into work. A focus on flexible working could help distribute work around a greater number of people, but encouraging some mothers back to work is unlikely to give the government the full cost savings it seeks to achieve.

How realistic is the coalition’s proposal to require single mothers to return to work when their youngest child reaches school age, if work and childcare cannot fit together?

Similarly, the proposals to abolish the default retirement age and raise the state pension age will lead to an increase in the working population. Working nine to five, five days a week does not seem realistic for every 66 year old. Again, it seems like part-time working or more flexible forms would suit this section of the workforce.

With a specific commitment in the coalition agreement that the government will widen the right to request flexible working to everyone, demand for flexible working patterns is only set to increase. It is interesting to see how far this debate has moved – the CBI recently said it is “ready to work with the government to introduce greater flexibility in the sharing of caring responsibilities between parents.”

To be effective, jobs will need to be available to suit various different working requirements. But how will employers deliver this? It is naïve to think working culture will change overnight. If the government is truly committed, it will need to invest and incentivise employers to change their practices.

Government grants

In 2007, the last government offered grants worth £500,000 in all to 13 employers under their Quality Part-Time Work Initiative. Royal Mail received a £25,000 grant from the government, to which it added a further £30,000 to help recruit female managers in operational roles where shift systems had previously operated as a blocker to female applicants. After reviewing the roles, they confirmed a number of the jobs could have flexible hours of between 16-24 hours over three or five days. Nine female and eight male part-time managers were appointed. Case studies like this show how money, planning and good communications can lead to quality flexible working. The strapline in their advertisement was: ‘Spend more time with people you care about’.

Grants like this to pay for the additional costs involved in job sharing, or training programmes to help women back into the workforce after lengthy absences for childcare, are essential if the government wants the private sector to challenge the norm and explore different ways of working.

Lessons could be learnt from another area where legislation was accompanied by financial support. It was not until the Access to Work grant scheme, which contributes towards the costs of reasonable adjustments, became well known, that many employers – particularly smaller ones – changed their attitudes towards employing disabled people.

One possible counter argument to targeting women within the workforce will also be removed when the Equality Act 2010 comes into force in October. The scope for employers to take positive action will significantly increase to cover the types of incentives previously mentioned, and hopefully the government will realise more grant-funded schemes like the Quality Part-Time Work Initiative will be needed if flexibility really is to be the future.

Valerie Dougan, professional support lawyer, the employment team at Dundas & Wilson

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