If anyone had asked me (they never did) what was the most important quality of being a parent (note: I am not saying ‘good’ parent) then I would have said, and would still say, ‘time’. Like most of us, I certainly had lots of anxieties about being a parent. But I reasoned that if I set aside enough time to the task then, as Philip Larkin might have said, I could at least mess it up properly.
Many people won’t agree with me and others will point out that not everyone has the luxury of choosing the hours they work. For my wife and I, the equation was as follows: we wanted to be with our children longer than they were with someone else. So we both worked four days a week (4 days for us, 3 days for the child-minder).
We both work in the public sector and both our employers were very accommodating. But two recent pieces of research from Acas on flexible working have got me thinking back to those days (my children are now grow-up (ish)).
A couple of moments stand out: a male colleague with young children told me how lucky I was to have a three-day weekend and to have so much quality time with my children. I said that I was sure he could request a similar arrangement. He didn’t and not many men did then or do now. Why? It may partly be to do with gender stereotyping. We know how slow the take-up has been of shared parental leave. And the Acas report from the Institute of Employment Studies on how women can ‘maintain career development’ once they return to work from maternity leave, shows that flexible working is (for some workplaces and to some extent) a problem designed to solve a problem.
In too many workplaces, flexible working is seen as something for women – they do the bulk of the childcare and take on other caring responsibilities. Research tells us that men are keen to spend more time with their children but they don’t get the same sales pitch as women do. I remember one manager who used to follow me down the corridor at five o’clock (the time I had to leave to pick up my daughter form nursery): as if astonished I could be so strictly keeping to my contractual hours.
There is a very gifted fiction writer I have discovered called Owen Booth (remember the name). He has published a series of pieces (a mixture of fiction and memoir) on the theme of ‘what we are teaching our sons about …’ (before you ask about the daughters, he has two sons). He covers diverse subject areas, including ‘what we are teaching our sons about whales and geology’, about ‘the loneliness of billionaires’ and about the ‘particular smell of hospitals at three in the morning’.
If he were to focus his attention on flexible working and gender stereotyping (and, if he was feeling especially brave, the gender pay gap) I wonder what he would muse about?
Are we teaching future generations that for men work is always more important than childcare? That ‘face time’ is a key determinant of career progression? That flexible working is a solution to a problem and that no one wants to be associated with problems?
There is a lot of very welcome campaigning going on at the moment about promoting the benefits of flexible working. For example, Digital Mums have the catchy hashtag #cleanupthefword and the slogan ‘do some f****** work’.
The Acas research paints a more nuanced picture – yes flexible working can be good but it only works with the right workplace culture and, ideally, with men getting involved as much as women.
I cherish the time I had with my kids, but maybe it was a pretty straightforward decision for me. I don’t really care what the system thinks of my choices but perhaps others have to care and feel less freedom to make the same choices that I did.
Senior Policy Advisor at Acas (www.acas.org.uk)