Flexibility and value

Alison Johnstone reflects on International Women’s Day.

On International Women’s Day I reflected that so much of the work done by women is often undervalued and invisible, and it remains the case that work traditionally done by women is paid less than traditional ‘male’ jobs.

Last week I visited the Little Monkeys nursery in Crammond. Nursery staff do an incredible job embedding play-based learning at a vital time in little people’s development. Almost all of them are women, working with such energy and commitment I found it exhausting just to witness.

Many years ago, I volunteered on Thursday mornings at my daughter’s nursery. I was always struck by how intensive that 2.5 hours was, and how impressive it was that the staff delivered 10 similar high quality sessions every week, appreciating not just the age but the development stage of each child.

This coming August the national entitlement to free childcare will increase from 600 to 1,140 hours. Parliament will debate the progress on Wednesday, but as Audit Scotland reported last week, more than 4,000 nursery staff have yet to be recruited.

It is surely no coincidence that the Scottish Government is also struggling to recruit other jobs dominated by women, like nursing, social care and teaching.

This is about value. We need to grow these sectors, but when it comes to the big capital spending we still throw money at bridges and motorways.

For the expansion of hours to be valued by families, they must be flexible. Many women work around the clock, they work shifts, they juggle two or three zero-hour jobs, travel between these, having to fit in school drop-offs and pick-ups and feeding their children.

Almost all lone parents are women, who have been unfairly and relentlessly targeted by UK welfare reform.

What’s more, childcare expansion cannot just be an economic lever to get more mums into employment. It has to be a quality experience for our children, providing nurturing, play-based development with meaningful relationships. Staff who are underpaid or run off their feet will find it much harder to provide that.

And it isn’t just the jobs that are undervalued. So, too is the training. Sir Ian Wood’s report in 2013 warned that vocational training needed to be placed on the same level of esteem as university degrees, especially when more than half of our young people don’t go to university.

He also called for measures to improve gender balance in training. Are we doing enough to attract young men into early years and childcare?

Similarly, there must be quality pathways and jobs for women as we transition to a low-carbon economy. Jobs in renewable energy, for example, remain dominated by men.

In parliament, we also see a lack of flexibility. We vote at 5pm, but often it is not the end of the working day for MSPs. Meetings in and out of parliament take place in the evening and the weekend.

It’s rewarding, varied and incredibly interesting work, but like many other roles, it demands long hours.

I was saddened to learn that Communities secretary Aileen Campbell will not stand for re-election next year. Like Gail Ross MSP, she wishes to spend more time with her family. Of course, this tension is not unique to parliamentary life, or to women, but if democracy is representative it must work for women and respect a work/life balance.

Closing the gender pay gap is about more than equal pay. It is the duty of parliament and government to address the underlying culture which still devalues women’s work.