How do working women find the time to care?
Helen Sunderland, Director - Local Public Services Team, EY, 8 March, 2018

It is 217 years to gender parity according to the World Economic Forum – 47 more than last year. To have a chance of closing the gap more quickly, we need to think differently about supporting women and families to balance home life commitments whilst still progressing successful careers.

‘Sandwich carers’ or the ‘sandwich generation’ describes those supporting dependent children and increasingly ageing parents. Research by Carers UK showed there are c.2.4 million people ‘sandwiched’ between providing support to older adults with disabilities/ chronic illnesses and having children to care for as well. This picture is also gendered, with women (particularly those 45-54), being two times as likely to give up work and four times as likely to reduce working hours to take on caring responsibilities. If you couple this with recent stats on Shared Parental Leave, you see how current ‘sandwich’ cultural, legislative and socio-economic factors contribute to an increased economic gender gap.

Is it possible to ‘share the joy’?

I had my little boy in August 2015, just after Shared Parental Leave (SPL) legislation went live. For a number of reasons, our family didn’t take advantage of this – recent reports suggest we are not alone (2% of 285,000 eligible families). Cultural stigma and affordability were two big reasons that cited, which is a really interesting paradigm. The positive attitude and financial/ other policies we have worked so hard to push forward for the benefit of working women, don’t always work in a whole family context. Feedback suggests that men are concerned that if they take a break to look after their child, their commitment to the job will be questioned. Also SPL pay is often offered at the statutory level, not enhanced maternity as per some maternity policies. This means the offer within the same company can be different for women and men. Practically, this means a family can end up worse off even if the woman is the higher earner. It takes the choice out of ‘sharing the joy’. Some organisations, EY being one of them, have recognised this and offered equal pay. More need to follow.

Engaged aging though empowered employees?

A number of my friends and colleagues, as well as the happy demands of having a young family, are also coping with caring for elderly parents or other relatives, often who live far away. The mental and physical impact of this on carers is not to be underestimated as the unpredictability of illness and the support required becomes an increasingly frequent. Whilst with childcare/ parental support, you can see the green shoots of change in supporting family units to have real choice in caring arrangements; supporting carers of elderly relatives is a debate we have left to communities and local health and care systems. How we can support employers to play a key role in this is relatively untouched.

For me, this is a huge opportunity. Having spent 12 years working with and more recently as a ‘customer’ of social care services (private and state funded), I can see the pressure and strain on the system. I can see the amount of time required to undertake personal errands across parents, grandparents and children. Too often, we have to wait for things to break before intervention and as a result people struggle to continue to balance it all.

Firstly, we need to think about ‘caring leave’. We need to approach these responsibilities with a similar mind set to child care, parental responsibilities and ‘returning to work’ from maternity leave – the emotion, anxiety and complexity is the same.

Secondly, we need to think differently about how employers more proactively promote and facilitate a preventative approach. Managing family commitments effectively is a contributor to good mental health. This in turn means happier, more productive workforce who are more likely to continue in work. This helps prevent the loss of a fantastic repository of skills and knowledge when people feel like they can’t cope anymore.

What if, like pre-tax child care vouchers, you could purchase ‘care and support’ vouchers through your employer. If employers brokered partnerships with care and technology providers to put together a digital and physical care and connectivity offer. This would allow employees to put in place support for their elderly relatives much earlier. Helping them stay connected when they can’t always be physically present. Ensuring that affordable care can be provided creating greater peace of mind for members of their workforce impacted by ageing – something most of us are going to have to deal with someday. The ‘engaging ageing’ section of the industrial strategy is beginning to recognise this connection – perhaps this is an opportunity to put forward to tangible ideas to support employers on this critical agenda.

A change in the way we approach caring – on both sides of the ‘sandwich’ – doesn’t have to be specific to women. In fact to prevent the impact of career gaps being felt predominantly by women – it is important that they aren’t. You shouldn’t have to choose between a successful career and a happy, healthy, connected family life – perhaps if we fast forward some small changes that help all family members, we won’t.

Helen is EY’s lead for Social Care and is passionate about sector improvement and innovation through assistive tech and analytics. She lives in SW London and her lovely son and husband and 2 cats.