How UK social policies continue to maintain gender inequalities in work and family

Despite various changes since the establishment of the post-war welfare state, Jenny Chanfreau argues that British social policies have maintained an unequal gender regime. Current policies continue to differentiate between ‘worker’ and ‘parent’, much like William Beveridge’s explicitly gendered male breadwinner/female caregiver model.

Formal equality of men and women in the labor market has been a legal requirement for several decades. For example, equal pay for work of equal value has been protected since 1983. Nevertheless, the most recent statistics recorded the median gender pay gap at 15.4%. The latter is often largely explained by the different behavior of men and women after becoming parents. Yet this behavior is heavily shaped by policy, as shared maternity/paternity/parental leave and pay, along with a range of other policies, articulate the opportunities to combine paid work and child-rearing differently for men and women. the women.

Carol Bacchi’s theoretical lens on politics as gender practice draws attention to the role of politics in the complex ongoing social construction and negotiation of gender. The approach asserts that policies help to constitute categories of people, that is, the meanings associated with groupings of people, such as mothers and fathers. This attention to politics as a process of categorization also highlights how political assumptions of “appropriate” behavior for women and men are often implicitly white and middle-class as well as gendered, and thus simultaneously racializing, classifying, heteronormed.

Applying this approach, I have traced the gender of ‘worker’ and ‘parent’ through taxation, in-work and unemployment benefits, leave, childcare, child support and social housing policies over time, and I have concluded that despite a multitude of changes to work and family policies, their gendered effects have remained remarkably constant.

The welfare state established in Britain after the Second World War, with social security rights linked to employees’ contributions, assumed full male employment, a male model of continuous full-time employment throughout life and stable heterosexual marital unions. The Beveridge report emphasized the role of women as wives and mothers with rights derived through the marriage contract. In the early decades, the institutionalization of the male breadwinner model was explicit in many policies, most obviously through joint taxation, but there are many other examples. Did you know, for example, that when a Caregiver Benefit was introduced in the mid-1970s, married women were initially not eligible because such care was presumed to be part of the normal duties of a wife?

Fast forward to the present day and there could be individual income taxation, but the male breadwinner model is perpetuated by means-tested benefits for low-income families. Universal Credit explicitly assigns primary caregiver status to a single parent, whose work requirement is reduced based on the age of the youngest child. Terminology may be gender-neutral, but this reveals an unspoken enduring commitment in benefit policy to (gender) specialization. There is no possibility of a custody-related adjustment to the work requirements of the non-lead parent, either among couples or separated parents (regardless of the number of contacts).

Furthermore, since part-time work rarely offers financial security or salary progression in the short or long term, encouraging part-time work for “primary carers” (usually mothers) can then be considered compatible. with the maintenance of the primacy of their caring role. It exempts the state from either supporting the combination of full-time work and caregiving for all, or from valuing child-rearing through adequate levels of social security and pension protection. This highlights the continued state support for women’s financial dependence on (male) partners. Which, by the way, is also reflected in the low levels of wage replacement for postnatal leave.

Thus, Universal Credit actively impedes the equal sharing of income and parenting responsibilities among low-income parents. The single payment for couples, ostensibly to mimic a salary, further illustrates the underlying assumption of a single earner family/full-time caregiver model. Thus, whatever the gender-neutral terminology, the effect is as gendered as Beveridge’s explicit male breadwinner/female caregiver model. This example also shows that despite the rhetoric of non-interference in private affairs and the right of families to choose how to organize unpaid work, in practice British policy intervenes and regulates family life quite willingly (in especially for low-income people), through his commitment to a patriarchal regime. family model.

Focusing specifically on policies aimed at separated/single parents, we can see that Britain’s political preoccupation with fathers has been strongly and consistently focused on financial provision, and ambivalent about their role as caregivers. Through a combination of child support rules and household means tests for benefits, the policy positions biological and social fathers as financial providers. Meanwhile, the inflexible conceptualization of family living conditions means that active parenting and caregiving in households cannot be factored into the benefit system. For example, regardless of the actual arrangements, Housing Benefit treats parents as one person if their children are registered as living with the other parent. The reduction in the rate of benefits for single people, which limits the financial accessibility of housing suitable for shared custody and overnight stays of children. Since most children whose parents live in different households typically reside with the mother, benefit rules that hinder rather than support shared custody not only classify fathers as breadwinners and mothers as caregivers, but also have class effects. Contact and caregiving is presented as a privilege not granted to low-income separated fathers who receive benefits.

I argue that despite a host of changes to work and family policies, including the introduction of shared parental leave and the right to early education, their gender the effects persisted. Requiring mothers on benefits to undertake paid work (at least part-time) might seem to indicate that the policy no longer assumes that ‘the worker’ is male and has no family responsibilities. Yet these policy changes mask the consistency of the gendered family ideal in all policies. Parents are not positioned as interchangeable in their roles of provider and caregiver, or even as each having a dual role, instead, policy stipulations that there is a primary caregiver reinforce the gender division of labor , as the father figure remains primarily a financial provider. Neither when living together nor in separate households are both (or all) parents considered equally important and required as caregivers.

Instead of committing to a more equitable gender order, through individual changes, UK social policy has generally maintained a consistent gender order over time. The implication is that specific policy recommendations to increase equality, such as the individual right to leave for fathers and partners, are insufficient if the commitment to privilege the nuclear family and gendered division of labor sanctioned by the State remains intact in other policies. These measures must be complemented by reforms in benefits, housing, employment and pension policies to support and encourage individuals’ care responsibilities within and between households, as well as their attainment of full citizenship. , regardless of their labor market status or relationship.


Note: the above is based on the article published by the author in the Social Policy Review.

About the Author

Jenny Chanfreau is a researcher in demography at the UCL Social Research Institute.

Photo by Kenneth Sørensen on Unsplash.

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