The lesson Cameron needs to learn from Birgitte Nyborg

Our Scandinavian friends have much to teach us.

David Cameron has been in Stockholm this week, expressing his love for all things Nordic from economic openness, to free schools, and the Danish TV series The Killing.

Based on his pronouncements today he's doubtless also been attracted to Borgen, the political drama in which a female prime minister juggles coalition politics and the demands of a young family at the same time as driving through her commitment to equality in the corporate boardroom.

It's a welcome sign as we have a lot to learn from our Scandinavian friends -- and not just about increasing the number of female directors. We could also learn a lot when it comes to supporting the vast majority of working mothers.

As a new report from the Resolution Foundation today shows, motherhood in modern Britain still carries a heavy price in the workplace. More than nine out of ten of those surveyed, switched from full-time to part-time work since having children. Of course, for many women this is a positive choice with mothers wanting the flexibility to work fewer hours, especially when their children are young.

But here's the rub: it also shows that even when making a positive choice, working part-time still carries a very heavy cost. An incredible 44 per cent of women reported that they'd had to take a lower-skilled job when switching to part-time work.

 

By working part-time, do you feel you've had to take a lower skilled job than you would have if you worked full-time?

Working part-time

 

And while these trade-offs affect people in all income groups, those on low to middle incomes are far more likely to face constrained choices and tougher penalties. Compared to more affluent women, those on low to middle incomes are almost twice as likely to feel that they have no choice but to work part-time, and when they do they are 33 per cent more likely to be forced to take a lower skilled job.

Millions feel constrained, having to choose between a more fulfilling and well paid career and family life. As one respondent put it: "I guess just have to accept that career progression is impossible now because I chose to work part-time, employers won't admit it but this is the reality for part-time working mums."

And we're not just constraining parents' choices, we're also harming our economy. Overall the UK ranks 15th in the OECD in terms of levels of female employment. If we caught up with the highest performing countries, up to one million more women would be in the workplace.

The chart below shows the gap between our female employment rate and better performing countries for women of different ages. The story is clear -- it's at the peak years of childbirth that we really fall behind, with mothers having to drop out of the workforce.

 

Female employment gap between UK and better performing countries

Female employment

Given that the UK has the second most expensive childcare in the OECD this is hardly a surprise - nor is the fact that almost half of working mothers say that the lack of affordable and quality childcare is a key barrier preventing them from increasing their working hours.

Here's hoping that there is a sequel to Borgen in which Birgitte decides to highlight the plight of ordinary working mothers and the role that universal childcare plays in enabling them to work: and that someone makes David Cameron watch the box-set.

 

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

0800 7318496