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The writer is head of HR research and thought leadership at UK software company Sage. She is writing in a personal capacity

This article is an edited version of the winning entry to the FT’s 2023 essay competition to win a free EMBA, organised with the 30% Club and Henley Business School.
The 2024 contest question is: ‘Will Artificial Intelligence be a help or a hindrance to women achieving greater representation in leadership?’ More information:

 Working no longer makes financial sense for three-quarters of UK mothers who pay for childcare, according to the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed. Overall, the cost of childcare has gone up dramatically in the UK — for the under-twos it has risen more than 40 per cent over the past 10 years — making the country one of the most expensive for childcare in the world. The UK’s Office for National Statistics reports a long-term decline in the number of women in the labour force, which was accelerated by the pandemic, and is now rising again.

Yet there is no shortage of policy solutions on offer. 

The UK can draw on a range of ideas from across the world to improve the affordability and flexibility of childcare. Japan offers a year of paid paternity leave. In Sweden, parents have a legal right to reduce their working hours until their children turn eight. In the Netherlands, it is increasingly common for employers to allow fathers to work flexible hours in order to look after children for up to one day a week.

My previous role as head of digital at the UK Treasury, however, showed me that the real challenge policymakers have is in actively listening to parents, and then truly putting their views at the heart of policymaking.

Performative engagement from policymakers

As part of a consultation on the design of the Tax-Free Childcare scheme in 2013, civil servants used a survey that I compiled with them to poll working parents on the build of the scheme. The online survey received more than 35,000 responses from parents which remains a record number for such a government poll. Yet, I saw at first hand policy officials’ reluctance to take on board the responses, implement the suggestions, and design the scheme based on parents’ input. 

This article is an edited version of the winning entry to the FT’s 11th annual essay competition, organised with the 30% Club and Henley Business School, to win a free executive MBA place. The full essay question was: “Affordable and flexible childcare is a challenge that concerns everyone. What role can employers and policymakers play?”

The judges were:
Danielle Harmer, chief people officer, Aviva; Latanya Mapp Frett, chief executive of Global Fund for Women and author of The Everyday Feminist; Sarah Ronan, acting director, Early Education and Childcare Coalition; Vicki Shabo, senior fellow, gender equity, paid leave and care policy & strategy, Better Life Lab at New America; Ana Graca, Henley Business School; Laura Whitcombe, 30% Club, and Harriet Arnold, FT Project Publishing

The overwhelming theme that emerged from parents’ responses at the time was that they wanted a scheme that would be simple to use. By March 2021, just 282,000 families were signed up out of an eligible 1.3mn — less than a quarter. It turned out that the process was excruciating for parents. The UK government also commissioned research on the barriers to taking up the scheme; it found that parents thought the scheme sounded confusing, incorrectly assumed they were ineligible, wrongly thought the scheme would be linked to tax, and that there would be many forms to fill out. 

Not actively listening to parents’ views on the design of the scheme led to poor take-up, and left families unable to get much-needed support with the cost of childcare.

In March 2023, free childcare hours were announced in the chancellor of the exchequer’s Budget. However, there has been no formal consultation process with parents about its design. Policymakers are simply not listening properly to parents on the design of childcare policy.

A lack of active listening from employers

Organisations do gauge the views of their employees, but are not always able to act on these. There is a performative element of just wanting to be seen as a flexible employer and supporting working parents.

In my role as head of HR research and thought leadership at UK software company Sage, I know from talking to parents that the common solutions that businesses can offer are already well-known: remote working, flexible hours, a four-day week, working around school terms, job shares, and part-time hours — to name but a few. 

Companies regularly ask employees for their views through pulse surveys, in which these solutions are frequently requested by their workforce. But they don’t always take meaningful action. Many HR leaders tell me they struggle to get support from senior managers in the rest of the business who often, wrongly, think that working from home or flexible hours means decreased workforce productivity, not more.

And, even though the pandemic resulted in more flexible ways of working in some companies, a study in February found that 40 per cent of working mothers said they need to complete their work beyond their official working hours — raising concerns of “fake flexibility”. Moreover, employers increasingly want their people back in the office, sometimes full-time, which is piling pressure on parents over how they juggle childcare responsibilities.

Despite many surveys saying employees want flexibility, which would help with staff retention without hurting productivity, many business heads remain reluctant. They are not listening to parents.

Put parents’ views front and centre

Affordable and flexible childcare starts with policymakers and employers truly listening to parents’ views and having a genuine desire to act — not just a performative one.

In the UK, this means the government including parents’ views in their formal consultation process on childcare policy. All citizen responses should be published, which would help to hold policymakers accountable to the solutions put forward.

Schemes should be tested with users for feedback before launch. Separating out the design of services from government departments to delivery partners would give officials more autonomy to create policies that properly serve citizens and have longevity beyond governments chasing headlines. 

When it comes to employers, HR leaders are closer to the workforce and know what their workers want, thanks to engagement surveys and their own employee data, such as staff turnover. But they must build business cases that are sufficiently data-driven to persuade company leaders to change.  

It is in their interest. Businesses scoring most highly for employee engagement are typically 23 per cent more profitable than those scoring lowest, according to a Gallup global workplace report for 2022. And a report published this year called Growing Pains, by UK economics think-tank the Centre for Progressive Policy, found that 1.5mn women in the UK would work more if they had better access to childcare and would contribute another £27bn output to the economy — another 1 per cent of GDP.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
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