FEATURE: E&T MAGAZINE – Leaving women to hold the baby: the real reason for the gender gap?

Could addressing the ‘pregnancy penalty’ with equal parental leave policies for both mothers and fathers be a catalyst for retaining more women in the engineering and technology sector?

Despite continued efforts, the engineering and technology sector is failing to close the so-called gender gap, with ratios of women in the industry compared to men still shockingly low. Only 12.37 per cent of UK engineers are women, and females hold only 5 per cent of leadership positions in the technology sector, according to PwC.

Yet, while the industry is deploying various initiatives, little attention has been given to inequality around parental leave policies that discriminate against women and leave them, quite literally, ‘holding the baby’.

Evidence of the so-called ‘pregnancy penalty’ is both ample and damning. The University of Bristol in October 2019 provided some stark statistics. It found only 27.8 per cent of women from more than 3,500 new parents were still in full-time work or self-employed three years after childbirth, compared to 90 per cent of new fathers.

This contrast in employment status post-partum is due to a myriad of reasons; many directly connected to where childcare duties fall. And while who is tasked with ‘holding the baby’ is considered a personal choice, the reality is that current parental leave policies make women carers by default.

Olga Fitzroy, an award-winning recording and mix engineer who has worked with Coldplay and the Foo Fighters, says she was infuriated and found it “really sexist” when she realised her self-employed status meant her family couldn’t take advantage of newly introduced shared parental leave and pay.

“I work in a male-dominated industry but I’d never felt discriminated against in my work before, but suddenly I was taken back to the 1950s where the government said mums need to stay at home and dads need to go to work, and that is the way it is. It was really infuriating,” says Fitzroy.

To address the bias, Fitzroy started the Parental Pay Equality (PPE) campaign, which prompted the government to launch a consultation last year on how it can improve current policies.

Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and Statutory Shared Parental Pay (ShPP) were introduced in 2015 by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government to allow new mothers to share their maternity leave with the child’s father. However, self-employed contractors and freelancers, of which there are 133,000 (18,000 women) in the civil and architectural/other sectors, according to the Office of National Statistics, were not included.

Employed fathers who take shared parental leave are only paid the statutory rate of £148.68 or 90 per cent of average weekly earnings for 39 weeks, whichever is lower – unlike mothers, who receive enhanced pay.

While companies can enhance paternity pay in line with maternity, most don’t. Of the 20 companies in the engineering sector surveyed for this article, only six replied saying they offered more than is legally required. Only two – AWE and Airbus – said this matches their maternity leave offering. Nationally, the Working Families charity found only 32 per cent of its surveyed organisations were enhancing Shared Parental Leave Pay.

Considering almost eight out of 10 British companies pay men more than women – in the engineering sector firms pay men 35 per cent more on average – this, to some extent, explains why take-up of Shared Parental Leave is extremely low. It is estimated only around 2 per cent of new parents take advantage of it.

Unable to share childcare with her husband, Fitzroy took eight months maternity leave, but it took her 18 months to get back to her pre-baby earnings. This is not uncommon. A survey by the PPE campaign found only 20 per cent of self-employed women interviewed were earning the same as they did before starting a family by the time their child was two.

Through her campaign, Fitzroy, who stood as a Labour candidate in the 2019 general election, has spoken to countless women who felt current policies and provisions negatively impacted their careers. This is particularly pertinent for contractors and freelancers who don’t have guaranteed work to return to after maternity leave and whose employment is often based on building and cultivating relationships.