IT is rare a government announcement elicits equal enthusiasm from the TUC and the CBI but that was the pleasing symmetry that greeted the Coalition's proposed extensions to flexible parental leave and rights to request flexible working.

This begs the question of why it has taken so long to abandon rigid working practices that have both held back business and blunted the career ambitions of millions of women.

Nowhere in the developed world is there a bigger gap between maternity and paternity leave entitlements. Current maternity leave means couples who have hitherto taken equal shares of domestic responsibilities are driven back to the stereotypes of the 1950s in which invariably the male was the breadwinner and the woman the carer. That imbalance is largely responsible for a situation where the combination of women working fewer hours than they would like and men working very long hours is more pronounced in the UK than any other OECD country, according to the Resolution Foundation.

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Its report last year found female employment was one of the main reasons for rising living standards in the 40 years to 2008 but then female economic activity rates flatlined. It concluded that unless obstacles to maternal employment are tackled, it is hard to see where future gains in living standards from low and middle-income households will come from.

Enabling new mothers to return to work after a fortnight and share the rest of their maternity leave with their partners will not only help employers to hang on to skilled and experienced female staff. It will also improve the recruitment prospects of some younger women, previously regarded by some employers as "a bit of a liability". Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg spoke yesterday of a million women "missing from the workforce". Tackling this "motherhood penalty" could produce a major boost to the economy too.

There are some caveats. The decision on whether to go back early must be the mother's. She will need to be protected from employer pressure to return quickly, especially if she is breastfeeding. Also, the legislation must be framed so that it does not give rise to legal action from fathers. And workers will need to give employers proper notice of their intentions.

Public policy can boost female employment, as the national minimum wage and child tax credits have done. Will flexible parental leave make a big difference? The lesson from Scandinavia suggests gender-neutral parental leave provides the legal framework and cultural change will follow, albeit slowly.

That change could be accelerated had Mr Clegg extended "use it or lose it" paternity leave. And, as Labour's Yvette Cooper argued, other changes such as cuts to maternity grants, housing benefit and tax credits, have cut the incomes of low income families with babies, making it less likely that either parent can take advantage of their legal entitlement to parental leave. And other obstacles to female employment remain, including the cost of childcare and the likely treatment of second earners (who are usually female) under the new universal credit.

Nevertheless, extending flexible parental leave is a good start. So is extending the right to request flexible working to everyone, including childless people with caring or educational commitments even if the promise of legislation "when time is available" and the vague requirement for employers= to respond "in a reasonable way" mean that nobody should hold their breath.

The basic point holds good: the British economy would be in better shape if employees had real choices about balancing caring responsibilities with paid work.