Skip to main content

On the 6th of February 1918, the first step towards universal suffrage was taken. The Representation of the People Act was a major step, but one that Emmeline Pankhurst, who had given her life to the cause, did not live to see. Given Royal Assent only shortly after her death, it gave women over the age of 21, regardless of property ownership, the right to determine their future. Ninety years on, we can be proud of how far we have come. But it is clear there is far more still to be done, and this is particularly evident in the workplace.

There is a clear gender gap at the top of the corporate world. In 85% of companies, the average woman employee is paid less than the average man, and only one in three firms have women as their top earners. The fact that more FTSE 100 CEOs are named David than are women is shocking, but understandable given the systemic barriers they face.

One key obstacle to career development is childcare responsibilities for those women who choose to have children. Shared parental leave is a good first step, but its use has been limited. Recent statistics show that it has only had a take up rate of 2% of eligible men since its inception in 2015. Shared parental leave in name alone is not good enough. Addressing this is central to ensuring that women are better represented at the top of their professions.

Whilst, in theory, women and men can share parental leave, the reality is far from it. Currently, only one third of families know about the new scheme. This makes the Government’s new campaign to raise awareness, ‘Share the Joy’, all the more important. There is still stigma and a lack of understanding around sharing leave, and this is too often manifested in a belief that women should take on the majority of this responsibility. There are no substantive incentives to combat this bias or encourage men to take their fair share.

Sweden was the first country to introduce a form of shared parental leave in 1974. This, much like our recent experience, came with little success until the introduction of incentives. In the first year of the scheme, men only made up 0.5% of all paid parental leave. In 1995, the government introduced the so called “Daddy Month”, meaning that any month of leave taken by a father would result in an additional month for the couple on the whole; this was expanded to two by 2002.

Now, men account for 25% of all paid leave. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sweden is considered amongst the best places in the world to be a woman. Even more so, it has one of the highest birth rates in Europe at 1.88 children per couple, rising from a low point of 1.50 in 1998. If we in the UK hope to combat an unbalanced and ageing population, we must heed the experience of the Swedes. We must introduce a system to incentivise men to take more leave, and by doing so, foster a less stigmatised and more inclusive environment for women and men. We must make sure that some parental leave is non-transferable and provide extensions for families that can only be received by men taking a share of the leave.

The birth rate in the UK has been below the replacement rate for over 45 years, and without net migration, we would be facing a decline in the working population akin to Japan’s. An increased focus on work, lower levels of disposable income and changing priorities have meant individuals are increasingly putting off or forgoing starting a family. But to make sure that those who want to start a family can, we must begin to properly share the responsibility of child rearing. Failure to do this may lead us down the road of demographic crisis.

It is clear that we have come a long way since the days of the Suffragette movement. The systemic barriers that have been broken down and the legal protections that have been put in place are something we should all be proud of. But in the words of Dr Helen Pankhurst, the great grand-daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, there is still ‘much to be done’.

Jordan Byrne is a member of Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.