By Abbie Hutty, senior spacecraft structures engineer, Airbus Defence and Space and IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2013
I met a fellow member of the space industry this week, an engineer now working at the International Space University. While hosting my visit, we spoke about all sorts, house renovations, politics, our spouses, our plans for our futures in the industry. This colleague was a little older than me, and he had met his wife in the industry, and together they have 4 children under 9. She has not returned to work since having the children, and he spoke with regret about how she was now finding she could not return to the industry, as her knowledge of the state of the art is considered outdated, the contacts she knew during her career have moved on, and the tools and systems she worked with nine years ago are gone. How much better it would be for her psychologically if she could go back to work, he bemoaned, how she struggles with being “just a stay at home mum” when she used to design missions to outer space.
Now the legal change came too late for this couple, at the time that they started their family, women took maternity leave up to a year– paternity leave was 2 weeks. Not so any more. For children born since 5th April 2015, men and women have been entitled by law to share parental leave. A couple have 52 weeks of parental leave, (and 39 weeks of statutory parental pay) to share between them as they see fit, with each partner able to take their leave in up to three separate blocs. They can even take the leave simultaneously, to share this time of sea change in their lives, to get to grips with nappies and teething and sleep deprivation and, I am told, the occasional spell of joy and fulfilment, together. But just as importantly, men can share the burden that their wives previously bore, of putting their careers on hold for the sake of their families, of losing their identity, temporarily, to become a stay-at-home-parent, with all that that entails.
For two years, this right has been enshrined in law. But how many fathers do you know that have taken advantage of it? I know one, and he and his wife recently took time off as parental leave together, after the birth of their twins. His wife and he work at the same company, somewhat simplifying the process, as well as making it easier to rationalise to HR. To me, he is a hero. A survey to coincide with the first anniversary of the policy showed that across all industries, just 1% of new fathers since the law was made, had used their allowance. A further study in December showed that only one in five employers have ever received a request from a male employee for shared parental leave.
Because here’s the thing. The other fathers I know haven’t been brave enough to take the leave. They’ve worried that it will impact their careers at this crucial point in their ascent of the ladder. They are worried about how they would feel to not have the purpose and fulfilment that they derive from their work, and their interactions with, and the respect of, their colleagues. And they rarely admit it, but they are worried that being a full time parent is every bit as difficult, and soul destroying, and tiring, and stressful, as they have been told by the women in their lives, and then pulled faces and belittled it to colleagues the next day in the office. “Oh it’s so terribly hard having to stay at home, and cuddle a baby, and sing a few nursery rhymes”, they say, rolling their eyes. “Not like coming into work every day and earning a living!” and together they snigger.
They need to man up.
They need to accept that these are the same problems, the same unfair impacts, that their wives, and the mothers of their children, have been enduring ever since it became commonplace for them to enter the workforce at all. Here is your gender pay gap, the reason you see less women on boards, in senior positions, achieving their full potential.
For two years, men have been legally entitled to accept a small sacrifice in their careers, their earnings, their perceived social standing, to allow the mothers of their children to retain slightly more of their own. And yet in the company I work, an engineering firm employing about 3500, only one has so far asked to use his entitlement. Only one has chosen to shield his wife from the full burden of the role of the carer, from all the personal, psychological, financial and societal sacrifices that this entails. He helped the HR department write the policy for shared parental leave – they had never been asked to provide one before.
It isn’t women that have the ability to make this change. Women have been collectively on the receiving end of this deal for long enough to know that it is in men’s hands, and only the men in their lives can take the plunge. How many opportunities in our sanitised life do we get to do something truly heroic? The 21st Century dragon that needs slaying is the gender pay gap, and equal employment opportunities. Ride in on your fiery steed. Change this for the woman you’d like to think you’d take a bullet for. Be courageous.
Actually studies show that fathers who are proactive in picking up parenting duties are seen as progressive and receive a fatherhood bonus – where women performing the same duties take a motherhood penalty.
My new contact spoke openly of the difficulties he saw for women in the industry. He spoke of how, once you’ve had children, even if you return to work, you are seen as a liability. You might go off and have another. You might have caring duties you have to fulfil, like looking after sick children or doing nursery runs. Your chances of promotion plummet.
He spoke about how female colleagues were leaving starting a family ever later if they were serious about their careers. You needed, he said, to reach a certain level of seniority, by the time you started your family, that you were willing to remain at for the next 10 years. Because you won’t be promoted again for that period. You couldn’t just get 80% of the way to that position – within touching distance of a team leader, or a principal engineer position, and then make babies. You’d never achieve the remaining 20% once you came back to work – you were damaged goods by that time. A liability.
This is why men, prospective fathers everywhere, need to man up. To be pioneers. Trail blazers. To take the time off work. To embrace caring duties. To be a “liability”.
Culture doesn’t change overnight. Culture doesn’t change at all without a few radicals who are willing to stick their neck out, and lead the revolution.
Until it is just as commonplace for “men of a certain age” to take time off to care for their families as women, it is the women who will continue to be viewed with concern and suspicion; women who will be passed over for promotion for a “safer option” in the form of a male colleague; women who will leave the industry because their skills aren’t seen as current, and it’s too difficult to come back. Women who will lose their identities and their self-worth, destined to become first a mother and wife, rather than being able to build their identity around their skills, their abilities, and the respect of their peers, like their partners do.
Share the burden. Be brave. Man up.