A year into Shared Parental Leave
What’s stopping parents from taking Shared Parental Leave?
Shared Parental Leave (SPL) celebrates its first anniversary. On this occasion, totaljobs ran a survey to understand how this parental right has been welcomed by employees in the UK, and how it has been used over the past 12 months.
Emma Jacobs, columnist at the Financial Times, shares her insights on the survey results in an exclusive article.
A year on from the introduction of Shared Parental Leave, a policy announced amid much fanfare by the coalition government, it appears to have been a damp squib. Government figures won’t be published until 2018.
But the best survey to date showed that at 6 months less than 2 per cent of fathers has taken the opportunity to become more involved in their baby’s life by sharing up to 50 weeks off work in the year after the child’s arrival. The government’s prediction was that the full year would be up to 8 per cent.
This survey of 628 people who were either expecting or hoping to have children reveals some of the reasons for such poor take-up. A key issue is the lack of awareness of SPL. As one survey respondent put it there “needs to be encouragement with more publicity and greater awareness in the workplace”.
Only 33 per cent of women knew about SPL, compared to 41 per cent of men. Moreover 65 per cent of men and women did not know if their employer offered enhanced pay and 74 per cent did not receive information about SPL or support from their human resources department.
Certainly if expectant parents do not know their rights, they are hardly likely to take them. There appears to be confusion among human resources directors and anxiety that couples will take staggered chunks of time between them that will be hard to co-ordinate and increase the workload for other employees.
I am sympathetic. To a point. Small companies do find interruptions hard to cover but having a baby is somewhat easier to plan for than a heart attack. No one should be indispensable and employers must plan for interruptions to business.
Other issues are the lack of affordability – few companies offer men enhanced pay, which some lawyers anticipate might result in fathers pursuing sex discrimination cases against their employer.
Yet there is much optimism about the policy. Among couples interviewed there was a strong feeling that SPL will help reduce gender inequality in the workplace (64 per cent of men, 70 per cent of women).
And that it will also strengthen the role of fathers in families (76 per cent of men, 84 per cent of women). As one respondent put it:
“One of the main benefits of SPL is that it allows new parents to ignore traditional gender roles, and if widely used I believe it would help reduce inequality between men and women in the workplace.”
Spending time with newborn babies has been shown to help forge bonds with their fathers; it also brings home the amount of work they can be.
The hope is that this experience will lead them to configure their working hours around children, or put pressure on employers to devise flexible solutions for their staff to juggle work and family commitments.
Linda Haas, the US sociologist who has researched fathers, particularly in Sweden, notes that good employers will monitor the quality of work for part-time employees so that the calibre of projects does not go down once they reduce their hours.
In the UK, the pay gap has closed between men and women in their 20s and 30s. For many, it widens after the arrival of children, hence the term, “motherhood penalty”, as women reduce their hours to look after their kids or become overlooked in the workplace, deemed to be on the dreaded “mummy track”.
As one respondent to the survey notes, “I think parents’ perceptions need to change. It doesn’t have to be the mother that stays at home, and this doesn’t always make financial sense, as fathers don’t necessarily earn more these days.”
One way of encouraging men to take parental leave is the “daddy quota” introduced in Sweden in 1995. This period of paid leave set aside exclusively for dads had the desired effect.
Today Swedish fathers, dubbed the “latte papas” take one-quarter of all parental leave and this year the daddy quota was bumped up to 90 days.
Dr Jana Javornik Skrbinsek, a sociologist at the University of East London, sees SPL as being characteristically light-touch.
“The UK has a tradition of being very stubborn about the state interfering in family life. In other countries, the state’s role in family life is more intense.” In its current format, the employer is key. “When so much is left to the employer it can be a lottery”, she says.
Recently the Women and Equalities Select Committee produced a report on the gender pay gap, highlighting the low take-up by men of SPL. One of its recommendations is three months of non-transferable, well-paid leave for fathers. Perhaps Britain will become a nation of “latte papas” after all?
Have you used your right to Shared Parental Leave or consider using it? Tell us about your experience in the comments.
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See the full survey results:
More on workplace equality:
85% think that families cannot afford Shared Parental Leave: The Fawcett Society, the Fatherhood Institute and Mum+Business comment on the totaljobs survey results.
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