The government’s planned fix for a failing childcare system in yesterday’s Spring Budget comes too late for generations of women in fashion retail. The industry’s gender imbalance is the sad legacy of decades of complacency when it comes to childcare costs, says Drapers features editor, Emma Finamore.
As a working mother it is impossible not to feel relieved at the government’s childcare announcement. From April 2024, free nursery hours will be extended to two-year-olds, before being extended down to those aged between nine months and two years.
Currently, unless in receipt of certain benefits, parents cannot access any free hours until their children are three years old. And there is already a lack of childcare professionals to cover the already existing demand– which the government is addressing by offering childminders who register with Ofsted £600 in start-up costs, and those who register with a childminder agency receiving £1,200. These announcements are more than welcome news to mothers and prospective mothers, who overwhelmingly take on primary caregiver responsibilities.
An upheaval of the system is long overdue – it has made working massively prohibitive for many women for years. At the moment, the UK is the third most expensive country for childcare among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), behind Switzerland and New Zealand. The average cost of full-time nursery (50 hours a week) for a child under two is nearly £15,000 a year, according to children’s charity Coram.
This has a huge impact on whether women stay in the workforce after having children. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in December 2022, shows that around 1 million women don’t work due to caring responsibilities, and a 2022 survey by the mother’s rights charity Pregnant then Screwed reported that 43% of mothers said the cost of childcare had made them consider leaving their job. Two-fifths worked fewer hours than they wanted.
The Women’s Budget Group – a network of women’s organisations, policy experts and academics – estimates that 1.7 million women in England can’t take on more hours of paid work due to childcare costs.
These aren’t just numbers, they are lives. Many of my friends have been forced to change jobs, move cities or leave work altogether as they simply cannot afford childcare. For them, this policy change comes – painfully – just a few years too late. If implemented earlier, it could have set their lives on entirely different trajectories – putting them in control of the course.
In an industry overwhelmingly powered by women, these are stories that are repeated over and over in fashion retail – and which then feed into a gender imbalance at the top of fashion businesses.
Earlier this month, Drapers’ exclusive annual research centred around International Women’s Day, revealed that progress in representation of women on the boards of fashion retail companies listed on the FTSE and Aim markets – after improving in previous years – has stalled since 2022. Even more worryingly, there has been a decline in those in executive roles.
Given what we know from the ONS and Pregnant Then Screwed, and how childcare costs have risen alongside inflation during the cost of living crisis, it doesn’t seem much of a leap to think that some of this could be down to a lack of working mothers moving through the senior leadership pipeline.
The issue applies to the shopfloor as much as it does the boardroom. If women cannot afford to work in the lower paid roles and part-time or irregular hours that the coal face of fashion retail frequently offers, that means businesses are losing out on a high proportion of talent, with women instead dropping out of the industry and in part fuelling a major staff shortage.
So, while yesterday’s news is welcome, generations of mothers forced to leave their fashion retail jobs might justifiably feel a sense of loss for the careers they could have had, were it not for a system that failed them. Ultimately, it is fashion’s loss too.