Who Cares? Crossing the gender divide with flexibility

One of the largest studies of its kind in recent years is calling on employers and policymakers to regard caring as the norm and adjust flexible working attitudes and arrangements accordingly.

Working mom with baby in a lap
The wide-ranging research by Ipsos and Business in the Community (BITC) found that nearly six out of ten women (58%) say caring responsibilities have stopped them applying for promotion or a new job. One in five (19%) have left a job because it was too hard to balance work and care.In response to its extensive findings, BITC has launched the “Who Cares?” campaign. It is calling on employers and policymakers to transform how they think about combining paid work and care, including offering equal parental leave for birth and non-birth parents.Their four key recommendations for employers are:
  • consider caring the norm, not the exception
  • champion equitable access to care for all genders in your policies
  • foster a culture that supports men to care
  • target men for flexible working. 

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Helping everyone achieve their share

BITC’s recommendations are made after its research found caring responsibilities impact women and low-paid workers disproportionately and limit progression. Ipsos and BITC interviewed a representative sample of 5,444 people across the UK to better understand contemporary attitudes and experiences around combining paid work and care.Whilst 35% of all adults, and 44% per cent of working adults, have caring responsibilities, the research found that they are not spread equally.Women account for 85% of sole carers for children and 65% of sole carers for older adults. More people from ethnic minority backgrounds (42%) have caring responsibilities than from white backgrounds. Although 94% agreed that caring responsibilities should be spread equally, 52% of women who are joint carers say they do more than their fair share – with only 30% of men admitting they do less.Only 27% of people believe men and women are treated equally in the workplace and one in five men (20%) said caring had stopped them from applying for promotion or a new job, compared to the much higher percentage for women.

Caring responsibilities, equity and inclusion

The impact of caring responsibilities on workplace progression is greatest on women, who are twice as likely than men to work part-time, and on lower-paid workers and shift workers, who find it more difficult to take time off during the day at short notice. People from Black, Asian, Mixed Race or other ethnically diverse groups are disproportionately affected, with one in two (50%) who have caring responsibilities saying they had been unable to pursue certain jobs or promotions because of this.One in three (32%) have left or considered leaving a job due to a lack of flexibility, compared with around one in five (21%) white people.

Making flexible working the norm

Despite the focus on more flexible working during the pandemic and interest in the adoption of practices like the four-day week, more than 50% of people would not feel comfortable asking to work flexibly when applying for a job and 43% say there is still a stigma around the subject.More than one in three respondents (35%) believe flexible working blocks career progression, with fewer than one in five (17%) having asked their employer to work flexibly.However, the research suggests that employers may not always share these attitudes: 80% of people who made formal flexible working requests had them accepted. 

Is there a low pay trap?

Three out of four people (75%) earning £26,000 a year or more said they felt supported by their employer in managing caring responsibilities for children, but that dropped to 50% for those earning less. More than one in four (28%) of those working shifts said they did not feel supported by their employer, compared to 10% of those working regular office hours.

Is there a care divide? 

Women make up over half of lone carers for all groups, including 85% for children, 54% for working age adults, and 65% for older adults. People who care for older adults (68%) are less likely to feel supported than those with childcare responsibilities (78%) or caring for working age adults (77%). Eight per cent of carers identify themselves as “sandwich carers”, looking after both children and older adults at the same time. Almost half (46%) of current workers have had childcare responsibilities come up during the working day and 52% of women, compared to 42% of men, say their day job has been interrupted because of this. More than one in three women (37%) said other caring responsibilities had come up, compared to 31% of men.  

What can employers do?

There is strong support for employers to take the lead, says BITC. Seven in ten carers believe that business and government leaders need to increase their commitment to supporting gender equality in the workplace.Employers should do more to support flexible working by providing information on the type of options available – 67% said this was among the most convincing ways of demonstrating their commitment – and how their culture supports this. But the focus should be on educating women and men about how they can balance work and caring responsibilities; at present, more men (22%) than women (15%) did not feel supported at work, and 57% agree that men are less likely to be supported at work with their childcare responsibilities.Among those who agreed that men are less likely to be supported with childcare, priorities for improvements included flexible working being promoted to men and women (70%), challenging the stigma around male care givers (46%), and offering longer paid time off for new fathers (36%). 

Adjusting cultures and attitudes

Charlotte Woodworth, Gender Equality Campaign Director at BITC, said: “Employers and policy makers need to understand that caring, for children and others, is a routine part of many people’s lives, and adjust working cultures to better support this. “Otherwise, we will continue to see working carers, particularly women and people from Black, Asian, mixed race and other ethnically diverse backgrounds, pushed down and in some cases out of the workforce. “Flexibility is key, thinking not just about where work is done, but also when. We need to move past old fashioned ideas about 5 days a week, 9–5, in one location and support everyone to craft a better work life balance, that doesn’t see some people penalised because they can’t work in a certain way.“But helping women do it all will only get us so far – we must also ensure men are given the opportunity to care. We need to overhaul out-of-date policies that presume only women want to take time out to look after the kids. The government should support employers to offer stand-alone, subsidised paternity leave, in keeping with most people’s beliefs that people of all genders should be supported to care.” 

Caring is sharing

Kelly Beaver, Chief Executive of Ipsos UK, said: “A record number of women are in paid work in the UK, and they make up nearly 50% of the workforce, but our research shows that many feel they are held back in their careers by caring responsibilities which are not shared evenly.“The majority of those we surveyed believe that more of this responsibility should be shared equally, irrespective of gender, and that employers have a key role in making flexibility at work the rule not the exception.“This research is invaluable in helping employers and policy makers to respond to the increasing demand for a more flexible approach to working and I am proud that at Ipsos we are leading the way, for example all our UK employees are offered equal paid maternity and paternity leave, because we firmly believe that the responsibility of raising a child should not be determined by your gender.”

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