It is a mark of how much society has moved on that a woman’s right to paid maternity leave, introduced in the UK in 1975, is now taken for granted. That fathers’ rights to time off lag so far behind, meaning that women continue to do the vast majority of unpaid domestic work and earn less money as a result, is a mark of how far we have still to go.
Labour’s announcement on Thursday that statutory maternity pay (which can be transferred to employed fathers) will under a Corbyn government be extended to a year, from nine months, is a promising signal that the party is thinking about parents and children. So is its new commitment to extend flexible working. Promises made at the same time, to introduce workplace menopause policies and extend gender pay gap reporting, appear aimed squarely at women voters – like policies from the other parties expected to follow soon.
But while Labour’s measures are welcome, and it was refreshing to see a shadow minister, Dawn Butler, address the previously taboo subject of menopausal health, in important ways they fall short. Raising the rate of maternity pay and making maternity allowance benefits easier to access would have more impact on the lives of poorer women. And while maternity leave in the UK is already generous, in terms of time, the two weeks offered to fathers is not. Increasing this would, perhaps counterintuitively, be the priority of a party determined to boost women’s opportunities at work.
That’s because evidence from other countries, most notably those in Scandinavia, shows that the way to reduce gender imbalances overall is to aim for a fairer distribution of domestic, caring and paid employment. Income disparities do not exist in a vacuum, and the unequal distribution of roles and resources in the home has its mirror image in what happens outside it.
Ten years of austerity have significantly worsened the position of women in the UK. Reversing these changes will require ambition beyond anything yet proposed, including the prioritisation of social infrastructure over the physical infrastructure more often favoured by politicians. Overhauling social care and early years education, for example, would not only benefit women. But since they are disproportionately carers, they would disproportionately gain from policies that increased provision and raised standards in these sectors.
Transparency is an important driver of such societal changes. Data showing that only 13%-16% of City traders are women, for example, helped prompt this week’s call to cut stock exchange working hours. Meanwhile, a campaign by Mumsnet to force companies to publish parental leave policies should help those seeking better working conditions.
The general election campaign is still in its early stages. Women, and all those who take an interest in the economics of care, should watch closely for further announcements.