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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Hours to Suit

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

At a conference organised by Working Families and Lehman Brothers Meg gave the following speech.


I welcome the Hours to Suit report with it innovative ideas of how employers can make flexible working arrangements work for them. There are practical solutions to a number of problems which employers encounter when considering a request for flexible working.


Last week I spoke at a conference hosted by Opportunity Now and my own Department which also highlighted the innovative ways that employers are tackling occupational segregation and unequal pay.


Why, given that we have this good practice, isn’t everyone making high quality jobs available on a part time basis?


The Nature of the Job

Women aspire to do well, be successful and climb the career ladder. However, many women in the labour market, especially those at more senior levels, find it difficult to combine a demanding career with family responsibilities.  How much time and commitment someone devotes to their career, how much to their family, is rightly down to personal choice. But the perception is that holding a senior post means you need to be seen to be working long hours, fitting-in with today’s long hour culture.


Asking to work flexibly, part-time or condensed hours can be difficult given the prevailing office culture. Of course these constraints, preventing people asking, apply to both women and men, but the implications are more apparent for women because of the effect it has on both gender pay and the opportunities gap. 


Despite 30 years since the Equal Pay Act women working part-time still earn about 40% less than men working full-time using median hourly pay. This is largely because part-time working is concentrated in low-paying sectors and junior grades.


Of course some companies recognise that this situation cannot continue. I’m pleased that companies, like the ones you represent today, are working to change the work place, not just for the positive effect this has for their own staff, but also because of the sound business case for doing so.


Reviewing Our Working Culture

You will be aware of the benefits of flexible working:

  • improved staff morale,
  • better staff retention,
  • access to a bigger pool of potential employees, and
  • enhanced productivity and competitiveness.   

In addition there are the social benefits of people spending time with their families and getting involved in their communities. A win-win situation


With society changing so fast it makes sense to review our working culture. 1.3 million new jobs are predicated to be created over the next decade; most are likely to be taken up by women. If employers do not change their practices they will not attract the brightest and the best.


Interestingly, at the moment it is often those organisations which are stereotypically male that experience the severest skills shortages. If these employers want to be competitive in the future, address their skills gap, they need to meet the demands of the workforce as it will be, not as it was. Today’s society is less forgiving of companies that remain citadels of older white males.


Helping to Change the Culture

But Government shouldn’t try and force people into the ‘perfect’ work life balance - anyway there is no such thing. However we can  help to change the culture, and help people to make choices based on their own priorities.


Legislation has helped. For instance the laws on flexible working that were introduced in 2003 enabled parents with a child under 6, or a disabled child under 18, to request flexible working. This placed a duty on employers to take any requests seriously, and only reject them where they could demonstrate good business reasons. Since then we have extended this right to carers of adults, this will have a huge impact on women given that around 58% of carers are female.


But changing the culture is not just about women. We are increasingly seeing that men want to spend more time with their families, and they must feel as free to ask their employers as women. Having already extended maternity leave and increased maternity pay, last Monday we launched a consultation on proposals that will give fathers the opportunity to choose to take up to 26 weeks Additional Paternity Leave to care for their child.


Additional Paternity Leave and Pay will change the way women and men share childcare responsibilities. For women it will allow them to return to work early, and give fathers the opportunity of playing a bigger role in the upbringing of their children. We need organisations with structures in place for everyone, where all workers feel able to request ‘hours to suit’ and where they don’t feel that they are going out on a limb in doing so. Some companies are already operating this policy and although it brings with it a range of challenges as companies work to meet business and employee needs, the benefits are tangible. An improvement in retention rates is just one benefit for companies operating flexible working.


Research has found high levels of employee satisfaction, and a significant increase in the availability of most flexible working arrangements, since legislation on this issue was introduced. In all, 87% of employees said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with their current working arrangements - up from 81% in 2003. This is good news, but we need to convince the sceptics, those who feel they cannot accommodate flexible working at all positions in their organisation.


Removing the Barriers

The Women and Work Commission Report, published in February 2006, confirmed that women are often working in low paid part-time jobs and are not making the best use of their skills. They estimated that removing the barriers to women working in occupations traditionally done by men, and increasing women’s participation in the labour market, could be worth up to £23 billion or 2% of GDP. 


We have the evidence of what is possible - a recent British Chamber of Commerce report has shown that around 60% of small and medium enterprises who offered flexible work patterns noted some improvement in staff retention, and around 50% noted an improvement in productivity. Flexible working is integral to a modern economy - it increases productivity, competitiveness and helps the economy perform better in the global marketplace. 


In direct response to the Women and Work Commission recommendations we launched a £500,000 quality part-time work fund to provide seed corn funding in support of projects designed to increase the number of senior and quality jobs that are available on a part-time basis. I am pleased that Working Families, and others here today, have been able to draw on this funding to provide further evidence on how employers can make this work.  


I know we have here a number of the 115 employers who have signed up to our Exemplar Employers initiative - another scheme which we developed as a result of the Women and Work Commission recommendations. A number of these employers are already ahead of the pack in offering flexible career paths and making quality part time work available.


Spreading the Word

Its good seeing best practice spreading, but we need to continue the debate and spread the word. In particular explain how employers can take flexible working into consideration during the recruitment process - flexible working from the beginning. Using the talents of all our people, whatever their gender or work preference - is an imperative if we are to continue to build a healthy and vibrant economy.  

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