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Leaving women to hold the baby: the real reason for the gender gap?

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Could addressing the ‘pregnancy penalty’ with equal parental leave policies for both mothers and fathers be a catalyst for retaining more women in the engineering and technology sector?

Despite continued efforts, the engineering and technology sector is failing to close the so-called gender gap, with ratios of women in the industry compared to men still shockingly low. Only 12.37 per cent of UK engineers are women, and females hold only 5 per cent of leadership positions in the technology sector, according to PwC.

Yet, while the industry is deploying various initiatives, little attention has been given to inequality around parental leave policies that discriminate against women and leave them, quite literally, ‘holding the baby’.

Evidence of the so-called ‘pregnancy penalty’ is both ample and damning. The University of Bristol in October 2019 provided some stark statistics. It found only 27.8 per cent of women from more than 3,500 new parents were still in full-time work or self-employed three years after childbirth, compared to 90 per cent of new fathers.

This contrast in employment status post-partum is due to a myriad of reasons; many directly connected to where childcare duties fall. And while who is tasked with ‘holding the baby’ is considered a personal choice, the reality is that current parental leave policies make women carers by default.  

Olga Fitzroy, an award-winning recording and mix engineer who has worked with Coldplay and the Foo Fighters, says she was infuriated and found it “really sexist” when she realised her self-employed status meant her family couldn’t take advantage of newly introduced shared parental leave and pay.

“I work in a male-dominated industry but I’d never felt discriminated against in my work before, but suddenly I was taken back to the 1950s where the government said mums need to stay at home and dads need to go to work, and that is the way it is. It was really infuriating,” says Fitzroy.

To address the bias, Fitzroy started the Parental Pay Equality (PPE) campaign, which prompted the government to launch a consultation last year on how it can improve current policies.

Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and Statutory Shared Parental Pay (ShPP) were introduced in 2015 by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government to allow new mothers to share their maternity leave with the child’s father. However, self-employed contractors and freelancers, of which there are 133,000 (18,000 women) in the civil and architectural/other sectors, according to the Office of National Statistics, were not included.        

Employed fathers who take shared parental leave are only paid the statutory rate of £148.68 or 90 per cent of average weekly earnings for 39 weeks, whichever is lower – unlike mothers, who receive enhanced pay.

While companies can enhance paternity pay in line with maternity, most don’t. Of the 20 companies in the engineering sector surveyed for this article, only six replied saying they offered more than is legally required. Only two – AWE and Airbus – said this matches their maternity leave offering. Nationally, the Working Families charity found only 32 per cent of its surveyed organisations were enhancing Shared Parental Leave Pay.

Considering almost eight out of 10 British companies pay men more than women – in the engineering sector firms pay men 35 per cent more on average – this, to some extent, explains why take-up of Shared Parental Leave is extremely low. It is estimated only around 2 per cent of new parents take advantage of it.  

Unable to share childcare with her husband, Fitzroy took eight months maternity leave, but it took her 18 months to get back to her pre-baby earnings. This is not uncommon. A survey by the PPE campaign found only 20 per cent of self-employed women interviewed were earning the same as they did before starting a family by the time their child was two.

Through her campaign, Fitzroy, who stood as a Labour candidate in the 2019 general election, has spoken to countless women who felt current policies and provisions negatively impacted their careers. This is particularly pertinent for contractors and freelancers who don’t have guaranteed work to return to after maternity leave and whose employment is often based on building and cultivating relationships.

In fact, career breaks in the engineering and technology sectors are often viewed unfavourably by hiring managers, says Natalie Desty, founder and director of STEM Returners, which helps engineers return to work after time off.

“The engineering industry is very traditional and there’s an unconscious bias around career breaks; it’s generally frowned upon – there’s a perception your skills are out of date,” she says.

Giving both parents the option to take time off to care for a child, on equal terms, could challenge this and other prejudices ingrained in the industry, she adds.

For example, even before a woman has fallen pregnant she can face discrimination for simply being of child-bearing age.

“Managers, particularly in small companies, may look at them and be thinking, ‘in a couple of years she’s going to be on maternity leave and I’m going to pay for it’, but if that’s also an option for a man, it levels the playing field,” says Carolyn Woolway, global HR change lead at Siemens Gamesa.

It would also send the right message. Rosie Gloster, senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, says that by not enhancing shared parental pay for men and encouraging them to take it, companies are effectively telling employees they value men more than women.

“They’re saying it’s OK for women employees to have time off work but not male ones. It’s a really subtle message that underpins the current culture and preserves the status quo. In the longer term this isn’t going to maintain the level of skills needed,” she says.

Last year, The STEM Skills indicator warned of a growing skills shortage costing businesses £1.5bn a year in recruitment, temporary staffing, inflated salaries and additional training costs.

Additionally, giving families choice on how they take leave in the first year of a child’s life could help address the gender pay gap. Research published in Denmark focusing on the UK, US, Denmark and Sweden in 2018, found for a woman, a 30 per cent pay disparity opens up immediately after the birth of a child because a woman typically stays off work longer. This pay gap stays at roughly 20 per cent for the next ten years.

Fitzroy believes this can be exacerbated by caring patterns set early on in a child’s life.

“If a father hasn’t had the opportunity to be hands-on from the start, those caring responsibilities are more likely to be deferred to the mother, meaning she will probably work part-time or take unpaid leave when a child is sick,” says Fitzroy.

Airbus Commercial, Airbus Helicopters and Airbus Defence and Space Ltd in June 2019 started offering male employees up to 23 weeks’ enhanced pay at their full average pay subject to eligibility. The group also offers reduced working hours for employees returning after maternity or paternity leave.

Prior to enhancing the pay, on average five men a year took shared parental leave. However, since introducing the policy, as of November, there had already been eight confirmed takers. Airbus changed its policy, according to a spokesperson, because, among other things, it believed the “advantages outweighed the issues”.

Carlos Beltran, a 40-year-old engineer working in Airbus’s Space Systems business, decided to take four months parental leave so his wife, a vet, could continue her training to become an ophthalmologist.

“When she was pregnant my wife was getting very stressed about missing this opportunity in her career, but when this policy was announced it meant I could take parental leave and my wife could go back to work after three months,” he explains. “And for me personally, I am very happy to have the opportunity to spend time with my baby, which is one of the most wonderful things you can do in life.”

Without the pay enhancement, Beltran’s wife, who is studying and is therefore the lower earner, may have been forced to take more time off. “However, now it doesn’t matter who takes the leave, as either way we maintain our income,” says Beltran.

For large companies the financial impact of enhancing parental leave pay is “probably not the biggest challenge”, says Rosie MacRae, head of inclusion and diversity at energy firm SSE.

“We are facing a skills gap in the energy industry and so there could be a concern about backfilling roles temporarily, which could put fathers off taking extended leave. That’s another reason why we need to encourage, attract and retain a more diverse workforce for the future,” she says.

SSE doesn’t enhance Shared Parental Leave Pay, but it does offer mothers full pay to return on 80 per cent of hours for six months. This has led to 100 per cent retention in 2018, except in retail, and around 50 women staying in the company. It has also started offering flexible working or compressed hours to new fathers to try and “challenge the stereotype this is just for mothers”.

However, MacRae says she thinks the real challenge is changing mindsets of UK working fathers so they feel taking elongated parental leave would not have a detrimental impact on their career.

“Offering enhanced pay alone won’t change this mindset over the next ten years, encouraging men to believe it’s OK to take time off when they become a father is where the focus should be,” she says.

When asked about this, Beltran says he didn’t feel any stigma in requesting parental leave, but adds that if he had been in a key position, without five or six other colleagues working in the same role as him, he may have found it harder to take the time off.

Research increasingly shows younger families are coming to expect more equality in leave and flexible working provision. A report by Modern Families Index shows that parents, especially millennial ones, are interested in sharing work and care, with 71 per cent of fathers saying they would consider their childcare options before taking a new job or promotion.

Of course, not all women will want to share their maternity leave allowance. This raises the question of whether Universal Parental Leave should be introduced, whereby both parents have their own ‘use it or lose allowance’, as shown in Sweden.

And while equality in parenting policies is not a silver bullet, but one of a plethora of necessary changes, it is a good place to start. As Dame Helena Morrissey, a British financier, campaigner and mother of nine, says in her book ‘A Good Time to be a Girl’, getting more women in the workplace, especially male-dominated ones, is not about giving them “special treatment” but changing the “corporate cultural norms” and destigmatising things such as flexible working and parental leave by making it available, on equal terms, for all.

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