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London needs to improve its offer for working parents

London is a tough place for working parents. The high cost of childcare, lack of flexible working practices, and low take-up of shared parental leave all add up to some of the worst maternal employment in the country.

We believe this is a seriously overlooked area of policy and at this year’s annual London Conference we convened a discussion examining how London can do better. Both our panellists and audience emphasised that the current system is not built for dual income families or single parents. A lack of flexible work including part time work and job shares, an entrenched work culture, and strict school hours and holidays are just a few of the hurdles faced by working parents.

Some challenges for working parents are particularly acute in London, such as long commutes, a lack of family members living nearby and higher than average childcare provision and cost. Childcare costs for parents with a one-year-old in London rose 7.4 times faster than pay between 2008 and 2016 – much faster that the rest of the UK. This often makes it difficult for families to financially justify having one parent out of work. These problems are amplified for single parents, who are both breadwinners and carers, and spend half of their disposable income on childcare.

Four out of ten mothers in couples are not working in the capital; this compares to just 27 per cent in the rest of the UK. London also has the largest “gender employment gap” for people of childbearing age across all wealthy parts of the EU – a gap which often widens after women return from maternity leave.

This means that London is missing out on the talents of women who tend to take most responsibility for childcare. Indeed, PwC research has suggested that increasing employment to Swedish gender parity levels would lead to an increase in GDP of 9 per cent in the UK.

At the same time, it’s important to remember the gender employment gap works both ways. Most men are not taking up the offer of Shared Parental leave, likely because they are not incentivised to do so. Aside from professional and cultural pressures, which are considerable, shared parental leave does not currently make financial sense for dual income families where one partner has a higher salary than the other. The gender pay gap means that couples often opt for the higher-earning father to stay in work, which reinforces this pay inequality over time. Better paid, longer parental leave provisions with ‘use it or lose it’ clauses, as in Sweden, could help even out this imbalance.

Panellist Christine Armstrong, author of Mother of All Jobs, observed that cultural and financial pressures are deeply intertwined and often end up reinforcing each other. Echoing sentiments that will be very familiar to working mothers in London, she told us that she often heard women saying,

“After childcare, I earn £50 per month”

but rarely heard this being said by men. In a system where women are presumed to be the default caregiver, is it any wonder they think of the childcare budget coming solely out of their salary, even when they are in a dual income household?

Of course, for many parents, the ability to return to work is a necessity rather than a choice. Our panelists explored the possibility of changing school hours to be more in line with working hours, and even endorsing a four day week as a change that would make a huge difference to Londoners’ ability to both parent and provide for their families.

“It’s about building a flexible system, rather than creating flexible people,”

Emma Stewart, Timewise

For London to thrive both economically and socially, employers need to step up and improve their offer to working parents. In turn, if the Mayor and central government are committed to eradicating the gender pay gap, they should be introducing policy measures and new legislation that would make balancing work and parenting easier.

Centre for London is looking to undertake research on which policies and practices would increase the maternal employment rate in the capital, but also support fathers to take up parental leave in order to improve prosperity and fairness. If you would like to discuss this, get in touch.

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Victoria Pinoncely was a Research Manager at Centre for London. Follow her on Twitter.