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Government policies fail working parents

11/11/2004 11:14:14

Government policies and legislation aimed at protecting working parents are failing to meet their objectives, according to research carried out by Dr Caroline Gatrell at Lancaster University's Management School. In the light of this, Dr Gatrell questions the value of the Government’s pledges to make conditions for working parents a central theme of their election manifesto.

Mothers and fathers interviewed as part of the study reported explicit discrimination by employers when they sought to change working practices because their children were very small. Couples with young children recounted that employers:

· made excuses for refusing to allow parents to work reduced hours

· blocked the career progression of those who work part-time

· downgraded staff who work part-time

· failed to publicise or commit to family friendly policies

· failed to support very new parents (eg not one employer provided facilities for breastfeeding mothers)

One mother, a hospital doctor in NHS, told Dr Gatrell:

“Someone who is very high up in [NHS] human resources said: ‘We are absolutely awful at managing motherhood.’ And you know, that is something they are going to have to address. They are miles behind. And when my [first baby] was born, that for me was a huge thing because I knew that I would never work as a [hospital consultant] again. I have worked 20 years to reach this level and I still have 20 years to work. And I find it just terrible that for this small break working part-time I am expected to sacrifice the rest of my career, I find that absolutely abhorrent.”

Jayne, an electronic engineer, said:

“I think working part-time mothers are not considered to be sort of the same as full-time staff. And I was shocked, I found I wasn't viewed in the same way or given the same respect as when I had been a childless full-time worker. I began to realise what was happening when they were doing the annual pay rounds - and I didn't get my pay review, just nothing. And I mean, not to get anything when all of my peers at work did - that was awful. Because I was a lead engineer and all the other lead engineers got something and I was the only one who didn't.

“So that's what introduced me to it. And you know I haven't had a personal development review since I started working part-time. And then I wasn't given the same responsibility in the big projects that all the other lead engineers were getting. Something new and exciting would come along and they'd get it, and I wouldn't get anything.”

The research was carried out by Dr Gatrell for her book Hard Labour: The Sociology of Parenthood, and involved couples in 'professional' employment.

Dr Gatrell said: “I was amazed at how explicit the discrimination was. My explanation for why so-called ‘family friendly’ policies are failing parents is because the attitudes of some employers and government agencies are still stuck in the 1960s. People automatically assume that mothers are responsible for childcare and that they lose interest in paid work when they have children. So they don't value them as employees. But I found that employed mothers were very ambitious and loved their jobs because work is part of who they are.”

Dr Gatrell added that, while they were happy to leave the responsibility for housework to mothers, fathers’ attitudes to paid work was changing, as they were investing more time in the upbringing of their children than in previous decades.

She criticised Government policies for being slow to respond to this important social change: “Fathers are investing more in their children. This may be because involvement with children provides a better return on investment than marriage or paid work. Laws which provide men with only two weeks’ paternity leave offer little to fathers who want to spend time with small children and perpetuate the myth that mothers are exclusively child oriented, while fathers think only about paid work.”

Dr Gatrell concluded that it was worrying if employers considered themselves above the law where discrimination was concerned and argued that the Government should invest more resources to ensure policies were actually operating to support parents. She also raised questions about the implications for women and men poorly qualified and in unskilled work, who may experience even worse conditions than the professional group under consideration in Hard Labour.