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New research shows UK work-life balance initiatives are failing working mums


New research by Liverpool John Moores University indicates that the Government’s Parental Leave and Flexible Working Request initiatives are failing to help working parents, particularly mothers, achieve a better work life balance.

Dr Kay Standing, who led the LJMU research, explains: "The Flexible Working Request is a move in the right direction, but its voluntary nature means it lacks any real power to help working parents. Very few people know that they are entitled to Parental Leave and this is indicative of a lack of commitment by the Government in promoting this policy."

She continues: "Part of the problem with the UK’s work-life balance initiatives is that they emphasise the value of paid work over care. Many women feel that they are ‘working for nothing’ in order to pay for childcare. We need to redress the UK’s long working hours’ culture and actively promote the role of men in caring for their children."

Since 1997, the Government has introduced a raft of new initiatives to enhance support for working parents, including benefit and tax reforms.

Thanks to £250,000 European Social Fund Objective 3 Funding, Dr Kay Standing and her team have been examining how well these measures support working women with children and what, if any, impact they have on their careers.

Their findings will be presented at the free ’Swings and Roundabouts: Work, Childcare and Women’s Career Progression’ conference in Liverpool on 24 May 2006.

Work-life balance is an issue for both parents, though women’s position as primary carers means that they are more likely to be affected by family-friendly initiatives.

Dr Standing says: "Work life balance is one of the most important social policy issues in today’s ’knowledge society’. On a positive note, our research shows that more employers are offering flexible alternatives to the traditional 9 to 5 working day. Unfortunately, the lack of any real legislative power, the UK’s long hours culture, and the assumption that women, even those working full-time, will take on the bulk of childcare and domestic chores mean that the effectiveness of the current work-life balance policies is questionable."

Over 80% of part-time employees are women and though on this surface this seems a good way of balancing work with caring for their families, the LJMU research shows that it comes at a cost, in terms of pay, training and long-term career prospects.

Women working within lower-level part-time work, such as care and retail occupations, are also less likely to access flexible working arrangements and are more likely to work fixed hours.

Ross Hendry, UNISON, who will deliver a keynote address at the conference, says: "As a Union with over 1 million women members, many of whom are in low paid positions, we have been really keen to work with the Government on its work-life balance initiatives. A lot has been done but now we have to tackle the challenge of extending the benefits enjoyed by some to all employees."

He continues: "Our members are often excluded from flexible working because they feel less empowered to ask for their rights even though they are enshrined in law. Furthermore, many of the more informal policies adopted by employers are geared towards employees in middle class professions. We now have to work together to ensure that best practice extends across all sectors of the economy for the benefit of sections of the community."

As part of their research, Dr Standing and her research team carried out 67 in-depth interviews and three focus groups with working mothers across the UK. The women worked across all sectors (private, voluntary and public), and in both junior and senior positions. A number were also lone parents. A further four focus groups were held with working mothers in the Netherlands.

Many of the women who took part in the research had chosen to follow the ’mommy track’, where they sacrificed career advancement for more flexible arrangements, such as working part-time or at home.

However, even in companies with family friendly policies, the culture of ’presenteeism’ where you are expected to work long hours to show your commitment to the organisation, meant that many felt obliged to work well beyond their contractual hours.

Dr Standing explains: "For many women, particularly those in more senior positions, a 9 to 5 working day is an unattainable dream. Some of the mothers we interviewed worked over 50 hours a week. They managed these excessive hours by working at home, in the evenings, early mornings and weekends. For some, this is the harsh reality of today’s flexible working arrangements but whether it constitutes a good work-life balance is highly debateable."

Dr Standing continues: "Forget Government legislation. If you are a working mum what really matters is your employer’s attitude to family friendly practices. Our research shows that many women feel forced into working part-time. Combined with inflexible, expensive childcare, part-time working is sometimes the only way women can manage."

Such involuntary part-time working doesn’t have to be the norm as demonstrated by the team’s analysis of family friendly employment practices in the Netherlands.

Dr Standing concludes: "We did find real evidence of progress in regards to work-life balance policy. However, there needs to be a more sophisticated appreciation of the differing needs of working parents and more commitment to tangible measures, rather than supportive rhetoric."

Shonagh Wilkie | alfa
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