David Prosser: Fathers get away with having it all

Outlook: Many businesses say such reform is too much when our economy is struggling
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The Independent Online

International Women's Day prompted a rash of research bemoaning the failure of businesses to promote more women to senior roles, with the Prime Minister even suggesting large companies might soon have to publish an annual report detailing their progress on this issue.

Quite right, too. We can't go on saying this will take time: well-qualified female graduates have now been flooding into the workforce for more than 30 years, yet the number of women in the boardroom has risen at a painfully slow pace.

Each year, women account for half of new entrants to the labour market, but only a tiny number make it right to the top. There may be lots of explanations, but the biggest factor is that for most women, having children means taking time out of their career, often at a critical time, giving male rivals a chance to get ahead.

Britain's maternity laws are good by international standards and have got better under this Government. And, after even a year at home, it should still be possible to catch up. But when women do return to work the disadvantage continues because, generally speaking, they do more juggling of work and childcare responsibilities. How many fathers can truly say they're the ones rushing to leave work on time in order to pick kids up from nursery, or they're more likely than their partners to take time off when the nanny phones in sick?

To tackle this, we should start with Britain's culture of long hours. Working mothers are more likely to lose out in an employment marketplace that values staff who are able to be in the office all hours. Flexible working may be a right in Britain, but women who go for it get promoted less frequently.

To challenge that, working couples have to split childcare duties more equally. And one way to get men to change their behaviour might be to be more radical on maternity policy: as it is always mothers who take maternity leave, the pattern is set from the start.

Let's push ahead, then, with the Government's proposal to allow parents to split maternity leave, so men have the right to take some, or all, of the year out of the workplace currently only available to women. As more men embrace that right, the tone of working couples' relationships will change. And as more men push for flexible working, women will no longer be at such a disadvantage.

Many businesses say such reform is too much when our economy is struggling. They don't want the extra administrative costs, or the hassle of having to plan for men taking time out as well as women. But this change should not be expensive because, overall, no more maternity leave is being offered. In any case, what costs there will be are dwarfed by the cost to employers of missing out on the fulfilment of the potential of half their workforces.