Is childcare still a women's issue?

Is childcare still a women's issue?

Is childcare still a women’s issue? asks Dalia Ben-Galim, policy director at Gingerbread

The new early years minister Caroline Dinenage’s official brief is women, equalities and early years. The combination of early years, women and equalities means that we once again return to the question of whether childcare is a women’s issue.  

Perhaps it is sensible for the government to lump these areas together. The evidence is clear: it is women who suffer a pay penalty when they become mothers (fathers, incidentally, sometimes benefit from a pay bonus). It is often mothers penalised in the workplace, with fewer opportunities for progression. And it is usually mothers who, faced with the high costs of childcare, are locked out of the labour market or forced to downgrade their jobs for perceived flexibility.

Accessible and affordable childcare could mitigate this 'motherhood pay penalty', taking positive steps towards gender equality, but the government’s key manifesto pledges of tax-free childcare and 30 free hours a week for three- and four-year-olds are unlikely to bring about that kind of radical change.

The promise to offer 30 free hours of free childcare is quickly unravelling. The rollout of the free hours itself is in jeopardy: providers say they are unlikely to provide it because of the shortfall in funding.

And even if it is rolled out, Gingerbread analysis has found that 20,000 working single parents will miss out because they do not meet revised eligibility criteria. Only those who are working the equivalent of 16 hours or more a week at the national living wage will be eligible to access the extra 15 hours a week of free childcare. This excludes parents who could benefit most: those on low wages who work on zero-hours contracts or part-time or those who are self-employed or studying.

If the government wants to fulfil its commitment to support everyone into work, the 30 hours should be redesigned to support single parents, parents in low-income employment and parents in training and education. It is here that the government could see a real return on the policy, by supporting parents – especially mothers – into work.

The other part of the government’s childcare offer, tax-free childcare, is unlikely to plug the affordability hole for many parents. It is regressive, skewed to benefit higher earners, and likely to inflate childcare costs. Arguably this money could be more efficiently targeted to genuinely deliver more affordable and higher-quality provision to more families.

What’s more, with further delays to the rollout of Universal Credit, the government’s promise to support up to 85% of childcare costs for those on low wages might not come in until 2022.

With single parents – mostly mothers – often spending half their take-home pay on childcare costs, the childcare infrastructure should be flexed by the new minister to deliver more affordable childcare for more families.

Gingerbread supports the Women’s Equality Party’s efforts to make childcare more affordable.

The government’s agenda as it currently stands – with early years, women and equality intertwined – will further entrench an already persistent motherhood pay penalty. It doesn’t have to be this way: a more affordable and accessible childcare system could offer opportunities for women and challenge the gender gap.

Early years is a challenge for everyone – it is not and should not be a women’s issue.