Public policy for gender equality: the to-do list

This post is based on a talk I gave at the Women’s Equality Party conference entitled Parity Begins at Home? in September 2018

Moving towards equality is a challenge from a public policy perspective not least because it relies on changing the way people think. Government isn’t very good at that. But structural changes can help, by nudging away from (or at the very least no longer reinforcing) the status quo. That is perfect work for Government. Here’s what’s needed:


1. Fund it right

Childcare comes top of the list because its so fundamental to removing barriers to work for parents. 

The very first step is a no-brainer: sort out the money. There are massive underfunding problems, and the one thing worse than not funding a good policy is underfunding it so it turns into a bad policy.

2. Decide what you want

As for the details, it depends on what you want to achieve. The big three goals are: supporting child development, increasing maternal employment and reducing inequalities. In the absence of a radically bigger childcare budget, the Government (local or central) have to choose to some degree, because the way you design your system is different for each of these outcomes.  Yet successive Governments have remained on the fence, not knowing (or not willing to publicly commit to) which of these they want to prioritise.

Broadly speaking for maternal employment, go for flexibility and affordability of provision, focusing on wraparound care provided at school. For child development, go for short bursts with highly trained staff. For inequality, put all your cash into poor areas or add a means test.

Without a clear objective, we drift and no one’s needs are met. At present, we have lack of flexibility, lack of wraparound care, lack of affordability, lack of equity and the most targeted provision we have – children’s centres – are being lost to budget cuts.

Shared parental leave

The other bit part of the care puzzle is parental leave. 

The introduction of shared parental leave (SPL) was a major happy moment back in 2015. Take up is another story, estimated at only 2% of eligible couples. That figure is disappointing, but it is not surprising. We knew back then that take-up would be low, because it is a badly designed policy. Here’s how to fix it.

3. Give dads rights

The UK should introduce a dedicated ‘use it or lose it’ paternity leave of 3 months at a sufficient replacement wage.

Why? Dedicated paternity leave is both an essential right of fathers as well as a boon for households in the long run. Fathers who care for their children as infants spend more time on childcare for many years afterwards. Moreover, the presence of both parents when a child is young supports positive development and better outcomes later on in life.

Despite all that, SPL doesn’t give dad’s any right to parental leave beyond the first two weeks of their child’s life. SPL requires parents to agree to share. Without dedicated rights, it is too easy for parents default to long-standing social norms.

It’s pretty shocking that the Government did not heed the recent Parliamentary inquiry – and a great shame that dad’s aren’t shouting louder for their rights.

4. Get the pay right

The largest barrier to take up of SPL is not being able to afford to take it. For the first six weeks, the person on leave gets 90 percent of their earnings, then it falls to £139.78 per week or 90 percent of earnings, whichever is lower, for the next 33 weeks. The Parliamentary Inquiry concluded that families should get 90 per cent of the father’s pay, capped for higher earners rather than at £140. This would ensure that all fathers, regardless of income, can be at home around the time of their child’s birth.

In theory, there is an opportunity for change this year. The Government are due to review SPL this year. In practice, I doubt much will change.

Flexible work

5. Change the default

For the parent doing most of the caring, paid work usually means part-time work. Yet part-time roles are overwhelmingly low-skill and low-pay.

The Prime Minister has called for all jobs to be advertised as flexible from day one, unless there are solid business reasons not to. But I haven’t seen much movement. The Government should follow through on this, opening up the labour market to all, rather than keeping the ‘good’ jobs for those without caring roles.

Stop stereotyping

6. Don’t let advertisers perpetuate damaging stereotypes

The Advertising Standards Agency have just consulted on a new rule

“Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.” 

So this to-do item can get a tentative tick…but we need to keep an eye out to make sure intentions become actions. Read more about the change and why it matters from Let Toys Be Toys

7. Get stereotypes out of schools

This last point is a tough one. As summarised by the Centre for Economic Policy Research:

[Teachers’] beliefs and attitudes influence children, positively as well as negatively.

Their beliefs regarding gender roles affect achievement outcomes of  girls.

A long-term exposure to a very progressive teacher mitigates gender achievement gaps

In other words, gender stereotypes are present in the classroom, and they have negative effect on girls – but good teachers can fix it.

Ideas include removing sexism from the syllabus (ground-breaking), enabling boys and girls equally in caring roles through games etc., and explicitly take a counter-stereotypical approach on gender roles, i.e. talking about female firefighters and male nurses. Organisations like Let Toys Be Toys have great resources on gender-neutral teaching, and the Good Lad Initiative run excellent workshops on helping boys step outside of the “man box”.

That’s the list. Now let’s get it done. More next week on how individuals can  take meaningful action to get this list to zero. 

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