Last month, new proposals were announced by government to change the rules regarding flexible parenting, maternity and paternity leave, and to extend flexible working rights to all employees, not just parents. From 2015, both men and women will be able to divide the standard 52 weeks of what was formerly maternity leave between themselves – crucially allowing both parents to take time at home and in the workplace in a way that works for them. This means no longer does it have to be the burden of just mothers to take the full maternity leave away from the office and therefore her career – which is fantastic news.

Women at Work, Flexible Parenting

More flexible working and parenting arrangements are of course long overdue and this is a huge win for working mothers everywhere which should not be taken lightly. I wasn’t ever sure that this would make it through to become law, and we are now looking at the fact that parenting in the early years of a baby’s life is not just down to the stay at home “mum”.

But – I’m not satisfied. Is this new flexible way of handling the early stages of childcare enough to solve the vicious circle of babies, women and careers? I say no. And this is why.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I recognise that this is a huge step forward for gender equality in the home, and in the roles both men and women can play in that crucial first year of a child’s life. The fact that a dad can now stay at home for the first year is huge – especially for those families where the mum is actually the main breadwinner and is keen to get back to work after birth for either career or financial reasons. Making shared responsibility “ok” and normalising a dad’s role in the home is incredibly important, and over time I’d personally love to see the number of men taking advantage of this more felxible approach increase hugely.

But it isn’t the maternity leave I’m worried about. It is what happens after the 52 weeks are up that concerns me.

Allow me to explain my particular situation, which I’d expect is not all that uncommon. I’m an ambitious woman, and my career is incredibly important to me. I wouldn’t say it defines me as such, but I’m definitely of the “live to work” attitude, as opposed to seeing a job as a way of paying the bills. I’m married, and it is likely that in the next 3-5 years as I reach my mid-thirties, Mr S and I will start a family. As it stands currently, I earn a good salary and love what I do, but my husband earns significantly more than me, and whilst flexible arrangements for parental leave in the early stages could be shared between us, it wouldn’t be a viable long term solution for Mr S to be a stay at home dad, or for either of us to work part time.

What happens after statutory parental leave, when I am keen to return to work for the sake of my career and our family finances?

Well – nothing. In our current situation, I’d have to find Mon-Fri childcare in order for me to return to work full time. I’m not in the position of having retired parents who could help share the childcare responsibilities, or other family that could help. Whilst the new laws on flexible working could be extended to my parents for example to support childcare, I’d never ask them, in the height of their careers to change their working patterns.

A quick check of various parenting forums tells me I’m not the only one struggling with this – and the overwhelming solution was for more affordable quality childcare. A recent report by Centreforum suggested that the averaghe family spent a whopping 27% of income on childcare and that there are widespread problems with quality, price and availability.

Whilst nursery places have increased over the past new years, childminder spaces (which are certainly more practical for full time working and commuting families) have fallen, putting them at a premium which can be charge for…well, a premium. Nick Clegg has recently called for more affordable childcare, hoping to make it a priority for the Coalition – but this cannot come too soon. All too often working mums find that after childcare costs and travel they are taking home only pennies (or worse, losing money) which leads to them dropping out of the workforce.

This is not good for me, and it is certainly not good for women in the workplace, and ensuring gender equality across all levels of all professions.

So, whilst I do a small victory dance for the introduction of flexible parenting, for me the fight is far from over. In order for women to progress the way they want to in the workplace, and more than that they way the should do, more support needs to be given to all families and all women that are keen to get back to work.

That, or a scientist needs to develop a way for men to share the burden of childbirth too…

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