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If you have nursery or school-aged children and you’re in a meeting or at your desk at 3pm, chances are your children are being cared for by a woman earning less than you are or nothing at all.

97% of childcare workers are women and it’s one of the lowest paid sectors in the economy. Women are much more likely than men to work part-time in order to care for children (41% compared with 13%), and women do 60% of the unpaid care work which sustains us all but isn’t included in GDP (the ONS has valued it at £1.24 trillion).

‘Work’ depends on many women not working, or rather, not getting paid to work.

Once parents, women and men experience the labour market very differently. Only one percent of men take up their right to three months shared parental leave (one of this year’s RSA Student Design Award challenges). Paternity pay is much lower than maternity pay, and men earn more on average so families take more of a financial hit if fathers take time out. The ‘motherhood penalty’ is profound and long-lasting: the value of part-time work in terms of future earning potential is almost equivalent to not working at all. It’s no surprise that the gender pay gap widens considerably for women over 30 and on current projections it will take until the 2220s to reach gender parity on pay.

We can’t wait that long. Women are not, as Caroline Criado-Perez puts it in her new book, Invisible Women, “the unencumbered workers the traditional workplace has been designed to suit”. This is especially true for single mothers: 90 per cent of single parents are women. According to a Unicef assessment of policies on child care and parental leave, the UK is among the least family-friendly of the world’s richest countries. Our lawmakers - like Stella Creasy MP - don’t even have a right to maternity leave or extra support for constituency work. Women have borne the brunt of austerity measures in the public sector and are significantly under-represented in many fast-growing, hi-tech occupations. But the RSA’s Future Work Centre YouGov survey found MPs "clueless also about the effect of radical technologies on women. They disagree that women will feel the most impact, despite emerging evidence to the contrary”.

The norms and policies that drive these gender inequalities need an urgent and radical overhaul. We need to recalibrate what work means - shape a new culture of work which recognises how our economic system relies on hidden work mostly carried out by women (see What’s Wrong with Work? by Lynne Pettinger) and affords that labour equal value.

So, what can be done? A ‘use it or lose it’ approach to parental leave could make a difference. In Iceland, where mothers and fathers get three months of leave each, paid at 80% of average earnings, with a further three months allocated between them, 90 percent of fathers take up their entitlement. So too, surely, could a more affordable and accessible childcare system, not reliant on suppressing pay and conditions of those (mostly women) who deliver early years care. We could learn from RSA-supported Leaders Plus and look at alternative models which challenge the existing system like Radical Childcare pioneered by Amy Martin and colleagues at Impact Hub Birmingham.

Perhaps a four day week or Basic Income would enable men and women to more equally share earning and caring, though we’d like to see more gender analysis to understand how women and men may be affected differentially as these ideas evolve (see Hannah Webster’s RSA blog Why Basic Income is a Women’s Issue). The Deliberative Democracy movement creates new opportunities to properly listen and understand: the Citizen’s Assembly on Gender Equality is an exciting step forward - in Ireland.

But attitudes need to change alongside the legislative and public policy agenda. The competing demands of work and family, meetings and drop-offs, evening events and kids’ bedtimes can take a heavy toll on the health and wellbeing of parents and families. We’re expected to be at our most productive, career-wise, at exactly the time our children need us most. We don’t talk about this enough. It’s exhausting and guilt-inducing. It’s not Good Work, by any measure, for anyone. And without radical change in workplace culture - rethinking what work actually is - the future of work will only entrench the inequalities which hold us all back.

We’ve been sharing these thoughts and having these conversations as working parents for several years. But the challenges feel like they’re getting more acute and the need for action more urgent. We’re aware we’re only scratching the surface with this blog (there’s lots more to be said on intersectionality, and on care for older people, too, for instance) but we hope it aids a bigger conversation.

We’d love to hear what you think - please do get in touch. Abigail Campbell is Area Manager for the RSA in the Midlands and the East of England. Rich Pickford is Knowledge Exchange and Impact Officer for Nottingham Civic Exchange and is currently exploring how a city like Nottingham can champion Good Work for all.

Follow #goodworknotts for details.

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