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We can make Britain the best country to be a woman in work

4 min read

Female employment in the UK has risen, but family life and the economy will suffer unless workplace practices are modernised, writes Maria Miller MP

Over the past decade there has been a quiet revolution, with a record 15 million women in the UK in work. This shift is of profound importance to women’s lives, giving some the opportunity to chart their own path, realising the sort of economic independence men have exercised for generations. The equalisation of the pension age for women has played an important role in driving up the number of women in work, giving women the same opportunity to accrue savings and pensions for as long as men.

But there are serious implications for the way our workplaces operate and we need to change workplace practices.

More women in work without workplace reform has meant many women and their families, particularly on moderate incomes, are struggling; and more face elder care responsibilities too, with more than a million “sandwich generation” workers caring for their children and older, frail family members.

All employees have the right to request flexibility in their work, but flexible working hours are often dependent on line manager cooperation, not written in employment contracts, despite a statutory right to request flexibility enshrined in law by the Conservatives in 2014. Employees can feel trapped, unlikely to secure essential flexibility at a new employer, a key driver of the stubbornly high gender pay gap for women in their 40s and 50s.

The Government’s commitment to introducing a day-one right to request flexible working will help some people, but doesn’t overcome the uncertainty currently faced when individuals change jobs.

Attitudes towards women in work still are not universally positive. Statistics from the Equality and Human Rights Commission show unlawful employment practices still prevail, with 46% of employers saying it is reasonable to ask women to disclose during the recruitment process if they have young children.

More than 50,000 women a year feel they have no choice but to leave their jobs simply because they are pregnant, with non-disclosure agreements ensuring the reasons for their departure are not discussed.

Employer attitudes at work affect dads too. Dads are likely to face workplace pressure from employers not to take up their parental leave entitlements. Research has shown that 47% want to downshift into a less stressful job and 38% would take a pay cut to achieve a better work-life balance; highly problematic for future productivity levels of UK plc.

The Women and Equalities Committee, which I chair, has identified specific policies to modernise the British workplace: all jobs to be advertised as flexible to enable people with caring responsibilities to be able to access good quality jobs and not be trapped in low paid part-time work; maternity discrimination legislation reform to give pregnant women and new mums proper protection from redundancy, as there is in Germany; non-disclosure agreements banned from covering up discrimination at work to root out poor management; and dads and second parents given “use it or lose it” parental leave so they can share caring responsibilities, proven to be better for children.

These policies, along with a review of childcare and of carer’s leave, need to be central to the Government’s legislative programme.

Four out of five employers in manufacturing and almost as many in the service sector report difficulties in finding the right workers, according to recent research by the British Chamber of Commerce.

We need to harness the full talents of all our workforce, regardless of gender. If Britain is going to be at its best in a post-Brexit world, it has to be the best country in the world for women in work. Britain’s workplace needs to have the legislative framework to ensure modernisation is happening in practice.

Maria Miller is Conservative MP for Basingstoke and chair of the Women and Equalities Committee

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