On The Horizon – March 2024

Author: Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership, Bright Horizons

The 8th March every year is International Women’s Day (just as 14th July is International Non-Binary People’s day and 19th November is International Men’s day). This year, The UN theme for IWD is ‘Invest in women: Accelerate progress’.

Bright Horizons published our 2024 Modern Families Index mid-February and it showed working parents generally felt the level of family inclusion from employers had fallen since last year; and the negative impact was particularly felt by women.

We explore a little more here behind the data published in the Modern Families Index report, particularly what working mothers are saying about their changing experience at work, and home. And we set that in a wider context of some other recently published research with strong relevance to women at work, some of it specifically timed to coincide with IWD.

Modern Families Index (MFI) – stark messages from women

All 3,000 randomly-selected working parents and carers in this year’s Modern Families Index (MFI) selected ether male or female as their gender, so it is a straightforward binary comparison in gender terms. I’ve spent some energy over the years trying to encourage a less gendered view of parenting: surely it does not help anyone if we entrench divisions, pitting women against men over who is carrying the heaviest load around the home? However, the stark results in this year’s data made us look again and we felt a responsibility to let employers know what the findings are saying: that there is a risk of thinking we are already there with gender equity. In this dataset, progress appears to be reversing.

MFI – Women are losing some confidence in their employers

There are cautions overall in the data: there’s a drop in employer openness to conversations about family as well as less belief that employers care about work-home balance. These had all been rising over previous years but now seem to be falling.

The perception that managers care about work-home balance fell 2 percentage points to 67% versus 2023; confidence in talking about family issues at work dropped 4 percentage points to 67%.

The negative trend comes from female survey responses. In 2023, 71% of all parents felt confident discussing family-related issues with their employer: 67% men, 74% women. In 2024, this fell to 67% overall and while men’s confidence has risen to 71%, women’s has fallen to 63%.

Almost twice as many women as men who work flexibly do so to meet childcare responsibilities: of women who work flexibly, 51% say it is to fulfil childcare requirements (27% for men). However, women feel less able to progress their careers while working flexibly this year: In 2023: 68% of men and 67% of women felt able to progress while working flexibly. In 2024, men have risen (71%), women have fallen (63%).

MFI – What do women want?

A headline within the main MFI report was that the flight risk has risen: Over two fifths (42%) of all working parents are now likely to look for new employment in the next twelve months. The risk was lower last year at 38% and the increase has been among women. In 2023, 45% of men were looking around for new work and just 30% for women. This year sees the same risk – 45% – amongst men, but a rise to 38% for women.

And what draws working mothers to seek work with other employers? Family support is a reason for leaving for 34% of women in this survey who are considering quitting. It comes second only to higher pay (43%), and above reasons such as wanting a change (33%), career progression (31%), better benefits (27%) or feeling disengaged (23%).

In gender differences, the quest for family support is however one of the smaller disparities: it is 10% (or 3 percentage points) higher for women than it is for men.

Interestingly, there’s a bigger difference in women ‘wanting a change’ (22% uplift on men) and seeking career progression (15%). Women quote being disengaged as a driver 15% more than men. Men sway strongly toward seeking a better organisational culture (41% uplift for men vs women seeking this) and men are more deterred by ‘practical aspects e.g. commuting’ (18% higher than women).

So, yes, women are seeking better family support and many will not engage without it. However, it seems women are also a little fed up with being seen only as ‘working mothers’ and actually want more of a run at career progression, something which findings listed further above show is falling behind.

MFI – Are we happy with the mental load?

Three-quarters (74%) of women say they carry the mental load for parenting, compared to just under half (48%) of men. That’s a relative uplift of 54%. Some households share it equally, according to 43% of men but just 24%.

We also asked: ‘Are you happy with the balance of the mental load for parenting in your family?’ Yes, said two-thirds of men (66%) and half (52%) of women. Some want change: 39% of women would like their partner to do more (vs 13% of men). Over a fifth (21%) of men would like to be responsible for more (vs just 9% of women).

Just over 1 in 10 (11%) of our sample were in same-sex couple households. Still, the implication for male-female households is that women are doing more and that both parties have at least some appetite for change. Just as writer, editor and activist Gloria Steinem concluded well over half a century ago: “Women are not going to be equal outside the home until men are equal in it.”

BusinessLDN – Childcare is vital to the economy

BusinessLDN, KPMG and the Central District Alliance launched their report: No Kidding: How Transforming Childcare can Boost the Economy at the end of February, with media coverage including the Evening Standard and The Guardian.

Among other findings, KPMG economists worked out that increasing the employment rate among parents with children under five by 250,000 could increase GDP by up to £11.3bn per annum, promising an annual boost to UK public finances of up to £3.2bn.

Bright Horizons took part in the development of this report. The recommendations include:

Reduce the Cost of Childcare for parents

  • Widen funded places to 48 weeks a year
  • Extend funding to parents undertaking training / education
  • Smooth the eligibility cliff-edges (e.g. £100k cap for funded places; £50k - £60K thresholds for Child Benefit reduction or loss)
  • Bring forward primary school funding for wrap-around care
  • Workplace Nursery Partnerships – clarify the Taxation rules to enable more employers to form partnerships with local nurseries, giving parents access to tax & NI savings

Increase the availability of childcare

  • Build in reviews of funded hours
  • Provide temporary relief from business rates for providers
  • Ensure funding enables pay that attracts talent to early education as a profession
  • Bolster public awareness of funded hours schemes

Recommendations for Govt to maintain quality of childcare

  • Develop career profile of Early Years
  • Expand Family Hubs

There are various recommendations for other actions employers can take, including providing back-up care, with a Bright Horizons case study in the report. Muniya Barua, Deputy Chief Executive of BusinessLDN, urged that “childcare should be seen as a business and economic imperative, as well as a social one". 

Returning to the Modern Families index, childcare and elder care are consistently seen as vital supports for career progression. In 2024 76% of men and 80% women said they would seriously consider their childcare arrangements before accepting a new job or promotion. This has risen from 70% and 79% in 2023, with a notable rise among working fathers. The role of early education in career progression is clearly of rising importance for both men and women.

Gender Pay Gap – Findings of a persistent shortfall

PwC's review of global gender pay gaps – Women in Work Index 2024: ‘Unmasking inequalities’ – found the UK's "rank fell from 13th place to 17th place - the largest annual fall in rankings experienced by any OECD country this year. This was driven by a widening of the gender pay gap in the UK from 14.3% in 2021 to 14.5% in 2022 and the fact that the UK is being outpaced by other countries in terms of progress made towards achieving gender equality at work."

HiBob, the HR platform released its third annual UK Women Professionals in the Workplace report in time for IWD, showing one in ten men believe they are paid more than women, compared to over 3 in 10 women (31%). The report goes on: “Regarding the impact of parenthood on career progression, 54 percent of women report a negative effect compared to 33 percent of men. Intriguingly, 31 percent of men believe children have a positive impact on career progression, in contrast to 19 percent of women”.

FTSE Women Leaders Review

To end on a positive note, two encouraging studies were also just released. The FTSE Women Leaders Review shows progress towards gender equity milestones and the Level 20 study of parental leave in private equity (see below) shows progress in recognising the vital importance of supporting family life, for all genders.

The FTSE Women Leaders Review backed by KPMG & Lloyds Banking Group reminded us that the 40% women on FTSE 350 Boards milestone had been met this time last year, three years, ahead of target, based on a decade of work. This year sees 42.1% women’s representation, “an all-time high”.

Further, the number of All-Male Executive Committees in the FTSE 350 has reduced to just nine this year, down from “an astonishing 50 in 2018”.

Boards may however be easier to populate with women than is the wider leadership. The report calls for “sustained effort from those companies within striking distance of the target, and significantly increased effort from those companies still adrift” in order for  the FTSE 350 to meet the 40% target for Women in Leadership by the end of 2025.

Parental Leave in Private Equity

Some months ago, we supported Cassie Lloyd Perrin, Head of Industry Impact at Level 20 as a thinking partner on planning a parental leave survey in the private equity sector. We shared our learnings from years of running our own cross-sector Parental Leave and Family Support Benchmark.

February saw the launch of Level-20’s groundbreaking contribution to the sector: ‘Family leave in private equity’. “While generous policies in the wider financial services industry are publicised when hiring talent, in private equity and venture capital, information on family leave provision has usually come through informal networks or discussions with firms directly. This research is the first of its kind to publish comprehensive information on family leave policies and practice in European private equity” says Gurpreet Manku, CEO, Level 20

Key findings include:

  • 84% of Private Equity firms are currently reviewing or have reviewed policies in the last 2 years.
  • Just 19% make them available to job applicants.
  • 80% of firms enhance maternity leave. Average maternity leave offered at full pay is 6 months, with over half of firms offering 24-30 weeks leave.
  • 74% enhance paternity leave. Average paternity leave offered at full pay is 4 weeks, though where firms are equalising, this is significantly higher.
  • 33% equalise maternity and paternity leave. These firms are more likely European headquartered rather than in the UK and internationally.
  • 22% offer parental leave coaching or mentoring
  • 44% of firms offer return to work planning and 40% offer structured keeping in touch days, which are most commonly used for team building or catch ups (45%), board duties (33%) and portfolio or relationship management (28%).

So as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s raise a cheer for all those campaigners, researchers and leaders whose work continues to chip away at inequities as well as celebrating successes. Let’s also take on board that United Nations theme ‘Invest in women: Accelerate progress’. And as we scroll through the many metres of heart-shaped hands on social media (yes, like the picture here), let’s commit to ongoing action that recognises the strenuous (though usually also rewarding) reality of combining work and family for parents of all genders and keep paying attention to removing barriers and adding supports.