‘I had to quit my job because I couldn’t leave 15 mins early to pick up my child’
There will be some sense of relief for many parents this week as their kids head back to school in the coming days after six weeks of figuring out costly childcare arrangements. Mum-of-two Anna Whitehouse has been campaigning for childcare costs to be capped in the UK and for flexible working arrangements to be the norm for workers where it’s possible.
In 2015, the 41-year-old was forced to leave her job after her boss refused her request to start her day 15 minutes earlier so she could leave 15 minutes earlier to pick up her tot from nursery. Since that moment, she has vowed to not let her two daughters, now five and nine, have to compromise their careers to become mothers.
“My boss said ‘we can’t do it for you because it might open the floodgates to other people needing flexible working’,” Anna, also known as Mother Pukka, tells the Mirror.
“It wasn’t that I particularly thought I was the right person to step up and speak up but I remember thinking about how I was going to raise the girls – build you up to work hard in your ABCs, work hard in your GCSEs, in your A levels, to perhaps go and fight for that career that you wanted, to then have somebody else shut the door in your face.
“There are so many women who’ve been pushed out of the workforce and I need to do something about it.”
While the pandemic saw thousands of employees able to work from home, which has continued to be the way of working for many, Anna argues flexible working is not as simple as a distinction between the office and home.
The Heart radio journalist and author, who trained as a barrister, says there is far more to her Flex Appeal campaign – which aims to make it a law that employers must publish flexible working options in job adverts or justify why the job can’t be done flexibly – than simply a distinction of the workplace, with the binary argument clouding its true potential.
“I’m very nervous to say that the deconstruction of the working world in the pandemic was the silver bullet we were looking for it,” Anna continues.
“I had companies two weeks before we went into lockdown saying ‘it won’t work in our industry’.
“Two weeks later, if they didn’t log into Zoom, they had to shut down.
“They had no choice so it’s very interesting to see what is possible when money is at stake.
“But it’s not about those two polar opposites ways of working. There’s so much nuance to core hours, job shares, and compressed hours.
“There’s a whole different way of working that is being missed at the moment.”
Anna cites caretaker Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s slogan of ‘build back better’ when coming of lockdowns which encouraged workforces back into city centre offices, saying it wasn’t the right approach.
“I’d say ‘build back differently’,” she adds.
“The gender pay gap reporting got scrapped in the pandemic so it hasn’t done us any favours.
“But what it has done is given us, to an extent, a fresh canvas; a new way of building a working world, that bear in mind, was built in the Industrial Revolution when men brought home the bacon and women cooked it.
“I think we’re in progress, we’re in transition. But we are so far from where we need to be.
“It comes down to two elements – inclusion and trust. If you don’t trust the people you’re employing, if you’re looking at where someone’s sitting over what they’re doing, then that’s on you.”
A report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education shows that during the pandemic, mothers were 47 per cent more likely to have permanently lost their job or quit compared to fathers – which Anna credits to the gender pay gap.
As women are paid less than men generally in households up and down the country, their roles are defined as less important, she says.
And with childcare costs being compared to a second mortgage for homeowners, it has become a no-brainer for a multitude of nuclear families for one parent to sacrifice their job to take on the full-time responsibility of looking after the kids – like Anna had to.
The UK has some of the highest childcare costs in the world, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), following just Slovakia and Switzerland.
Here, the average cost of sending a child under the age of two to nursery is £137.69 a week part-time (25 hours) or £263.81 a week full-time (50 hours).
In Finland, which the Economist rated as the third best country in which to be a working mother, the state provides universal daycare from the moment a parent returns to work.
It also offers fathers nine weeks of paternity leave after the birth of a child, during which they are paid 70 per cent of their salary.
Meanwhile, Sweden boasts a dual-earner model, which is characterised by policies that support the equal sharing of work and child care, with the cost of childcare set by law – limiting the maximum rate compared to the gross income of the family.
Anna, who argues women take the burden of childcare duties, suggests families have conversations about how they can work around their children’s care together, and that men shouldn’t feel “emasculated” to ask their HR departments for flexible working requests.
“It’s not a women’s issue, it’s a societal issue,” the campaigner adds.
“Childcare costs in this country are debilitating.
“We are seeing floods of women stepping back from careers they have fought tooth and nail for against the odds on so many levels – childcare costs are simply drowning out female talent.
“There are so few women in government making legislative decisions, but I don’t understand why they’re not seeing it as a release of talent into an economy that is failing.
“It is that simple – release the talent and to do that you need to unlock childcare.”
Anna is speaking to the Mirror amid her partnership with Haliborange on its #HappyHabits campaign, which celebrates habits that families do to maintain a happy household.
After taking their vitamin supplements in the morning, Anna says her family all get moving with a kitchen disco before ending the evening with a bedtime read.
“When you do work flexibly, creating routine is really important for our family,” she says.
“My dad fought really, really hard to be there for me.
“I grew up thinking it was normal to have your dad around and he actually was ahead of his time and fought against a weight of misogyny in the 80s.
“He was there at bedtime every single night for me and that is the bookend in terms of habits and I now have that at the end of my day.
“With Flex Appeal, all I’m fighting for is more emotional intelligence over just IQ diligence.
“Because if I have those moments with my family, with the loves of my life, I am going to work so much harder for you and so they go hand in hand really.”