Government Changing Course for a Balanced Workplace?
November 10, 2011 1 Comment
David Cameron told the Financial Times the government is on an “all-out mission” to make life easier for businesses to save the economy. Red tape has been cut, benefits changed to encourage people back to work and financial support schemes like the Regional Growth Fund set up. However, has the Fawcett Society highlighted a glaring omission in the fight to get Britain working again?
The gender equality organisation has pointed to the effect spending cuts and benefit changes have had on women, saying that the government have “turned back time on women’s rights” and that “women have not faced a greater threat to their financial security and rights in living memory” – bold statements, but they may have inspired Home Secretary Theresa May in her speech to the Royal Commonwealth Society. She said “for too long, as a country, we have failed to make the most of the skills, experience and talents of women” and added that “this isn’t just a question of fairness, it’s also one of economic strength” with further support for women bringing significant benefits to the economy.
“If we fully used the skills and qualifications of women who are currently out of work, it could deliver economic benefits of fifteen to twenty one billion pounds per year. If women started businesses at the same rate as men, there would be an additional 150,000 extra start-ups each year in the UK. If the UK had the same level of female entrepreneurship as the US, there would be approximately 600,000 extra women-owned businesses, contributing an extra £42 billion to the economy.”
What changes could be made to get closer to these potential benefits May suggests?
One scheme is already underway to change the gender balance in UK businesses. Since the Lord Davies report in February, the FTSE 250 has been under pressure to boost female-representation on their boards. The Davies report recommended women have a boardroom representation of at least 25 percent by 2015 and a new report from Cranfield University has revealed the progress of the FTSE 250.
According to Cranfield, companies’ processes have seen a general improvement already, with many new appointments coming from outside the companies – showing an opening up of the application process, so less of the “old boys’ network” so criticised in Davies’ report. There is also the fact that FTSE boards that don’t have female-held directorships are now the minority with 133 of the FTSE 250 with women on boards, compared to 119 in 2010. However, there is still more progress to be made.
Another set of changes that could improve the equality of the treatment of men and women in the workplace is currently under discussion. These changes were outlined in the Modern Workplaces Consultation that took place in May, and the official government decision is due any day now.
The Consultation proposed an extension of parental leave so that, after each parent has taken their exclusive time off after a baby is born, they also have the option of 30 further weeks leave, 17 of which would be paid. The aim is to make these extra weeks flexible so they could be taken by either or both parents and in separate chunks or one large block. This would allow parents the flexibility to dictate who takes on the responsibility of childcare and could begin to undermine the expectation that women will take the responsibility of childcare. Extending the rights to request flexible working was also proposed, to widen the right to all employees. The new rules, if accepted, would allow any employee who has worked in an organisation for 26 weeks or more to request a flexible way of working. Until now, only parents have had the right to make such a request.
Theresa May said both these changes should be made as they would “shift attitudes” and encouraged businesses to make flexible working “an integral part of their business model”.
A third change to the UK business world was announced by May in her speech. She revealed plans of a mentoring scheme for more women to “fulfill their true potential” in business. The scheme, worth £2million, is aimed at women with ambition and business ideas who lack the confidence or business knowledge to make a success of them. The aim will be to recruit and train 5,000 professional mentors to extend the female network, so often lacking, in business.
Anna Bird, acting Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society said after May’s speech, “There are signs of hope that the government realises its economic strategy isn’t working for women, and we hope today’s speech signals a willingness to change course.” So, is the UK about to get a lot more flexible and supportive of employees, whatever their gender?
“There seems to be a loose connection between what David Cameron and the home secretary are saying. I fully support encouraging equal treatment of men and women as well as the assertion that we need to make more use of the skills available in the whole of the UK workforce in order to create a stronger economy. However, some of the schemes supported by Theresa May encourage equality at a serious cost to UK businesses. How can this be justified when the country is relying on business to bring back a booming economy?
The most costly of the schemes is the Modern Workplaces Consultation. I agree with the home secretary that businesses should be more open to a flexible way of working, and it is in keeping with modern demands to extend the right to request this to all workers. I also believe it is important to allow the parents and not the government to dictate who takes the main caring responsibilities for children in a family, but how can a vast extension to parental leave be justified? Businesses will be shouldered with the financial burden from this change, exactly what should be avoided in the midst of a difficult recovery from recession.
These proposals mean higher costs and more legislation for businesses and the fastest growing, small businesses David Cameron is depending on for economic recovery will be most affected. It would be interesting to survey the potential owners of the 600,000 new female-run businesses Theresa May predicts and see just how many would support this extra legislation and the business cost that comes with it.
There is also a problem with May’s business mentor plan; the concept of it is strong, the finances behind it less so. What exactly is the £2million to be used for? To recruit and train mentors the sum is pitiful and, with plans made for 5,000 mentors, that equates to just £400 each. To put that in perspective, that’s what a good business consultant could charge for just half a day’s work.” Duncan Taylor, MD of People4business.