It takes an employer: how addressing childcare can unlock diverse talent pipelines

For the first time in a long time, childcare is back on the UK political agenda. Just under three weeks ago, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced the biggest expansion of free childcare that England has ever seen, promising thirty hours of free childcare a week to eligible parents of children aged nine months to three years.  

Like many others, we have spent the past few weeks discussing the topic. As it stands, the system is broken: the eye-watering cost of childcare is pricing parents out of the workforce, and widening the gender pay gap in the process. It is an employee issue, with serious implications for diversity.  

In the UK, childcare is more expensive than in any other developed nation. Studies have found that some parents are spending as much as 80% of their income on nurseries and daycare, compared with an average of 9% in France and 1% in Germany. As a result, according to ONS data from the last quarter of 2022, there are more than 1.7 million people in the UK who are staying out of paid work in order to look after their family – and a significant 84% of those are women.   

While ultimate responsibility should lie with governments (a person’s experience of parenthood should not be determined by where they work), there are steps that forward-thinking companies could be taking to drive change. In this column, we take a look at those steps, and explore why childcare is the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to driving up diversity in our consumer sectors.  

As a starting point, there is an urgent need to reframe the conversation around childcare, which should be recognised not only as central to fostering an inclusive workplace, but also as critical business infrastructure. Investing in support for parents – at every stage – increases employee retention, boosts productivity, and is game-changing for employer brand. At a time when companies across the corporate sphere are scrambling for talent, offering adequate support to parents could mean the difference between success or failure in the labour market. As Joeli Brearley, founder of the charity and campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, describes in her book: “childcare is an open goal that employers don’t seem to be filling.” 

A photo of the Aviva head office in Gevena, Switzerland
Insurance firm Aviva became one of the first UK employers to launch an equal parental leave policy.

But beyond this, childcare plays a fundamental role in the journey towards gender equality – within businesses, and in society more broadly. In corporate settings, we’re seeing growing momentum towards gender parity on Boards, encouraged by targets such as those set by the Hampton Alexander Review, and mandatory quotas imposed by the EU. But while attention is being paid to the top tiers of an organisation, too many businesses are failing to address the ever-increasing number of women who drop out of the workforce to start and care for their family. Developing a strong pipeline of women leaders at middle management level will be critical to sustaining gender diversity in the long-term, and offering adequate support for parents sits at the heart of this.  

Companies also have a role to play in overhauling traditional assumptions about gender roles. Offering equal parental leave will be critical to moving the dial, but such policies are still not widespread – the ripple effect of which is that men spend on average a third of the time women do on unpaid labour like housework or childcare.   

So, what can businesses do?  

Reviewing the support on offer for new and soon-to-be parents is an obvious starting point. Globally, we are seeing the gradual emergence of progressive parental leave policies, providing all parents with equal leave time, no matter how a child has entered a family. More than three years ago, for example, insurance firm Aviva became one of the first UK employers to launch an equal parental leave policy, offering new parents in its UK business 12 months’ parental leave, with six months at full basic pay. Since then, figures from Aviva show the number of men and women taking leave is almost equal.  

Elvie is another organisation blazing the trail. “Until men have better access to leave, things won’t really change,” said Tammy Potter, Chief People Officer at femtech business Elvie. “We’ve reviewed all of our policies, enabling men to be part of the shift. Happily, we’ve seen many of our male colleagues take up the leave offered to them.”  

“Until men have better access to leave, things won’t really change,” – Tammy Potter, Chief People Officer, Elvie

In the past year, Elvie has taken its leave allowance one step further, streamlining its leave offering to introduce up to eight days of ‘life leave’. “If you really want to be inclusive, and you genuinely trust people, then give them leave for the things that will impact their life,” reflected Tammy when we caught up earlier this week. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a child’s school inset day, menopause symptoms, or a relationship breakdown. You can’t put a label on it, but it matters.”  

An image showing Elvie's new 'life leave' policy
Elvie has streamlined its leave offering to introduce up to eight days of ‘life leave’.

Many businesses are rolling out coaching for parents returning after a period of leave. “Maternity and paternity coaching is a really important piece for us,” said Catherine Allen, Head of Keeping People Happy at baby food brand Ella’s Kitchen. “I don’t think anything can really prepare you for what it’s like to have children – the joys but also the challenges. Your lifestyle and your identity can change so much, and some people find that becoming a parent knocks their confidence in the workplace. We offer coaching to help with this, from before any team member goes off on leave, right through to when they return.”  

“Your lifestyle and your identity can change so much, and some people find that becoming a parent knocks their confidence in the workplace.” – Catherine Allen, Head of Keeping People Happy, Ella’s Kitchen.

Patagonia has been offering best-in-class childcare support for nearly forty years. Alongside paid maternity and paternity leave, the outdoor apparel company provides subsidised access to on-site childcare for employees at its headquarters and distribution centre. The results speak for themselves: turnover among Patagonia employees who use the daycare is 25% lower than in its overall workforce; retention rate among mothers is nearly 100% (compared with 79% in the rest of the US); and the business has achieved a 50/50 gender split at manager and senior leader level.  

Elsewhere, the mass adoption of flexible hours and hybrid working since Covid-19 has been transformative for parents of school-aged children. Giving team members the freedom to leave work during pick-up hours or to attend school sports days is critical to building a workplace that is truly inclusive. Here, role modelling is key, and many companies speak to the importance of “leaving loudly” or “parenting loudly” to encourage a workplace culture in which working flexibly is the norm.  

 “Something that’s worked really well for us,” said Catherine Allen, “is having a senior leadership team who are all parents and who clearly demonstrate flexible behaviour. It’s not just about policies on a piece of paper, it’s about having a shared understanding of what it’s like to have a young family.” 

An image of the Molson Coors Brewery and Factory
Companies such as Molson Coors are taking steps to ensure that childcare considerations are part of the new normal.

Sarah Winship, DEI Director EMEA & APAC at Molson Coors, echoed this notion, suggesting that: “It’s about setting a new standard, and making childcare considerations an integral part of work. Simple things like putting a child’s nativity play in the shared work calendar for everyone to see can go a long way to normalise talking about childcare in the office.”   

“It’s about setting a new standard, and making childcare considerations an integral part of work.” – Sarah Winship, DEI Director EMEA & APAC, Molson Coors.

Of course, childcare is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Parents of children with additional needs, for example, will require an elevated level of support from their organisation. And policies which work well in an office environment – like hybrid models – may not apply in other contexts, such as on the shop floor.

For colleagues who work irregular shift patterns, such as health and care workers, having flexible childcare options is critical. Given that our consumer sectors are home to such diverse employee populations, across retail, manufacturing, customer service, distribution, and head office, this should be a key consideration for leaders. Some businesses have found that offering parents additional financial benefits, some in the form of a benefit wallet arrangement, (which they can choose to spend on childcare) is a more equitable approach – especially in organisations with a broad spread of roles and working patterns.  

For Catherine Allen, the first step is listening to colleagues. “The advice I’d give would be to actually speak with your people,” she said. “That’s simple to do in a small company, and can be achieved through focus groups in bigger organisations. In most companies, the people setting childcare policies are not the same as the people being effected by them, so before you go down a rabbit hole of complicated legalese and policies, find out what it’s like to be a parent today.” | | @TheMBSGroup