The widely unexpected announcement of an expansion to free childcare in the spring budget shone a spotlight on the quandary faced by millions of working parents in the UK.
In addition to the high costs of childcare in this country – which are among the highest of any OECD member relative to the average wage – a general lack of support for parents at work has prompted a growing number, especially mothers, to leave employment for the long term. About 1.1 million Britons are economically inactive because they have caring responsibilities, according to the Office for National Statistics. Of these, 1 million are women.
A survey by BlckBx, a provider of assistance for workers with family caring responsibilities, has found that 63% of working parents feel that having children has had a negative impact on their careers. The firm’s founder and CEO, Kath Clarke, reports that women are more than two times more likely than men to feel less ambitious after becoming a parent.
“I’ve seen so many of my friends drop out of the workforce,” she says. “It made me realise how little workplaces do beyond offering parental leave. Women are starting to downsize their careers even before having a baby.”
Mothers are paying a career penalty
Clarke can speak from personal experience. When she had her first child in her late 20s, she was director of marketing communications at a US tech firm. She quickly realised that it would be “impossible” to juggle her work responsibilities with those of being a first-time mother.
Clarke chose to leave the company and start her own consultancy business, which she hoped would give her the work/life balance she needed.
Reflecting on her decision, Clarke says: “This is the reason why so few women are getting past middle management. Even if they continue to work part-time, there’s a barrier to the C-suite because very few part-timers get promoted to executive roles. We need to fix the broken rung on the ladder.”
The full programme of support that the chancellor announced for working parents of children aged five and under won’t be in place until 2025. Nonetheless, nearly two-thirds (65%) of parents with children aged between one and two believe that it measures will encourage them to enter or rejoin the workforce, according to a survey by Indeed.
But there remains a role for businesses to support employees beyond the first months of parenthood too – something that’s often forgotten, Clarke argues.
“It’s not just the first year after a baby is born; it’s those 18 years that follow,” she stresses. “If anything, things get busier for working parents. My three kids have more active social lives than I do.”
How are employers supporting working parents?
With skills shortages and a renewed focus on attraction and retention, employers are finding new ways to support staff with childcare responsibilities. Such initiatives are proving popular.
Aviva, for instance, offers 35 hours of pro-rated paid leave each year to workers with caring commitments. Jonny Briggs, its director of talent acquisition, diversity and inclusion, reports that 583 members of staff in the UK took some carers’ leave in 2021. The average entitlement used per eligible employee was just over 11 hours.
Parents working at the insurer are also entitled to an extra half day off for their child’s first day at school – a perk that more than 1,400 people have used since its introduction in 2016.
Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser on resourcing and inclusion at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, believes that such simple concessions serve as a good example of how employers can “go beyond what’s required by the legislation and actually enhance their offerings”.
She adds: “There are lots of working parents out there. If you don’t have a reputation for being a supportive employer and you’re reducing your offer, you’ll find that addressing any skills shortages you have will become even more challenging.”
US tech giant Cisco Systems was ranked as the best workplace for parents last year by Great Place to Work. Jen Scherler-Gormley, its head of HR in the UK and Ireland, believes that more firms should understand that “caring goes beyond maternity and paternity leave”.
She says: “We want our people to feel that they can balance the demands they have at home as well as work without having to seek permission. This creates a really empowering environment and removes any potential feelings of guilt.”
At its UK head office near Heathrow, the company has a nursery that’s being used by 33 families. There is an employee network called Back to Business, which provides support for new parents returning to work. And “no one has to request to take leave so that they can attend a school event such as sports day”, according to Scherler-Gormley.
Rather than referring to maternity and paternity leave in its HR policies, Cisco has avoided using gendered language. The firm’s preferred terms are “main caregiver leave” and “supporting-caregiver leave”.
“We want to bust the myth that it has to be the woman who takes the leave,” Scherler-Gormley explains.
Given the large number of people leaving the workforce because of caring commitments, employers would be well advised to improve their support for working parents if they’re to attract and retain talent at a time when many key skills are in short supply.
If employers need convincing of this, they need look no further than Cisco. Scherler-Gormley claims that, since its policies have been in place, not one employee in the UK and Ireland has quit the firm after becoming a parent because of a lack of work/life balance.