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Women at work – an employment lawyer’s view

What are the barriers to women succeeding equally at work? Employment lawyer, Louise Singh, looks at some of the challenges that women face in the…

What are the barriers to women succeeding equally at work? One obvious answer is childcare; and the perennial problem of balancing family life and working life. True, these issues aren’t unique to women; men juggle just as many competing commitments, but women continue to suffer from the outdated perception (unconscious or otherwise) that when they have children, they will be less committed, less available and will want lots of ‘time out’.

Enter Shared Parental Leave, heralded as a game-changer on its introduction back in 2015, which allows mothers to share maternity leave with their husbands or partners. No longer would employers hesitate to employ a woman (on the grounds she’d take leave to start a family) when the new regime allowed dads to take just as much time away.

An enormous step in the right direction. However, the impact of SPL has been disappointing. The system is horribly complex and still poorly understood more than 5 years on. Uptake from eligible dads has been low. We know that many clients who were excited and geared up to do things differently have received very few requests. We have a good framework in place to re-shape what family leave looks like, but there is much more work to do.

SPL done well allows working mothers and their employers to be flexible and creative. Leave can be taken in blocks – allowing women to intersperse periods of work and childcare. Rather than feeling pressurised to cut short leave, working mothers can step back into work (to complete a key project or hit a deadline) before taking their remaining time away. However, personalised patterns like this take real employer engagement and co-operation.

SPL was also intended to empower dads and partners to ask their employers for the time they want and need with their children; a wonderful aim in itself. The knock-on effect though can only be positive for women at work. The more dads step up to share childcare, the more choices women will have when striving for that ever-elusive balance.

On a similar note, the extension of flexible working to all employees helps our helpers. While childcare responsibilities no longer take priority over requests for flexibility for other reasons, there is now a formal route for grandparents, aunties, uncles and friends to ask for space to support working families.

My #EachforEqual pledge as an employment lawyer is to support employers to understand SPL and flexible working, and to engage with their employees to find innovative solutions.

Time away from work with our children is precious. But how much better if we can balance it with the jobs we love in a way that works for everyone.

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