The era of evening- and weekend-only daddies should have gone out with the flatcap and trilby, but, no, fathers on full-time jobs plus overtime are increasingly the norm. The thing is the majority of British dads actually want to be spending more time with their kids. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Fathers, Family and Work Report, published last Wednesday, says that 62% of dads surveyed want to spend more time caring for their children.
The aphorism goes ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way’. So, if all these dads want to be caring for their kids more, there must be a way of doing it. But I’ve the sense that this view has been gaining ground for the last decade, or more, without getting very far. The revolution in fatherhood has only clocked up one major victory so far: two weeks’ paternity leave, at a minimum of £120 a week, secured for the brothers in 2003.
Men are bosses, managers and executives, so surely they could make changes, but we all seem to be caught up in the work ethic of the modern machine. 60% of fathers work over 40 hours a week. We know that we are all happier and more productive if we work shorter hours and have quality leisure, but we are caught in an economic trap that encourages employers to employ fewer people for longer hours. Greater numbers of dads may want to spend more time with their children, but a mixture of economics and the culture of workplace prevent them from doing so.
When it comes to parental leave, we need a flexible system that does not differentiate between parents on sex grounds. Giving mothers more leave than fathers is simply reinforcing the idea that it is the woman who should do the childcare. Our present system is saying exactly this, giving dads only a couple of weeks to ‘help out’. Without having researched the policies of all the main political parties on this, I reckon that the Lib Dems have the best policy towards parental leave. Their policy is to give parents a package of 18 months’ leave that can be divided between the two parents, with no one parent taking more than 12 months, and allowing parents to decide whether to take leave in turns, together or a mixture of both. It looks like single parents would get a straight provision of 12 months.
It is widely acknowledged that women face discrimination from employers when applying for a job or looking for pay rise or a promotion. Employers recognise that a woman who might be expected to have children would burden the business with maternity cover and pay, after which the woman might not choose to return. Some men fear that, if they were able to apply for greater paternity leave, they might face the same discrimination. However, the bigger picture shows us that this might actually serve to balance the employment demographic by reducing sex discrimination and encouraging the employment of older middle-aged workers. The latter, who often find mobility in the job market a difficulty, would be seen as unlikely to take parental leave, and thus receive likely positive discrimination to balance out ageism.
Parental leave can only last so long, and long-term child-care plans are needed. There is general concern that both fathers and mothers are able to spend sufficient quality time with their children, while the household retains sufficient income. With a lot of office work now possible by Internet, more workers are taking the opportunity to work from home. Although being able to care for children and put in a day’s work at home is no easy task, there is plenty of room for development of this kind of working arrangement as a means to restore the work–life balance. Another possibility is for two-parent homes to be funded by two part-time incomes, one from each parent. However, there is still much to be done to make part-time work as secure and well renumerated as full-time employment, hours for hours. Of all peculiarities, the Church of England (and some other churches) has seen a significant number of ‘clergy couples’, both of whom are ordained, being both licensed in a job share of a full-time post. Both parents sharing a single full-time job will not work for all couples, but is an exciting alternative to the all-or-nothing traditional arrangements.
When it comes to parents moving into part-time employment so as to spend some time with their kids, the Focus on Gender report from the Office for National Statistics tells us that, while 38% of women with dependent children work part time, only 4% of men do so. It is clear that sexual inequality runs very deeply when it comes to which sex actually tries to do — has to do — the work–life balancing. Of course, there is no ‘right’ patern of parenting, but it is obvious that, how ever much we consider our society to be equitably reconstructed, men are forced to work full time and women at most work part time. If there is to be more choice and flexibility for parents, fathers are the ones who have to start knocking on the doors, demanding to be allowed time with their families, and mothers, children and employers can only but benefit from this.