Shared Parental Leave is a funny old thing (SPL). When it was introduced, I had high hopes new dads and mums would instantly see the benefits and leap at the opportunity to spend time with their offspring following the arrival of a baby. It quickly became clear the introduction of SPL in the UK was going to be evolutionary, not revolutionary.
While take-up of the leave may not have been as high as many supporters would have liked, I’ve noticed an unexpected benefit. Thanks to SPL’s introduction, there’s considerably more public discussion about the role of fathers and acceptance that fathers want to be involved in their kids’ lives from day one.
I’ve been a dad for a decade. In that time, I have definitely noticed more public discussion, debate and, crucially, acceptance that fathers have a very positive contribution to make to their families. Time and again I hear it said that younger dads are more involved with their kids than previous generations.
The introduction of SPL, however, has created a focal point. Since April 2015, dads have had a legal right to ask their employers if they can have an extended period of leave from work and that, I think, has forced policy makers parents and the better employers to think more about fathers and fatherhood.
There seems to have been a further benefit with some of the more forward-looking employers thinking carefully about the role of women in the workplace. If you accept the fact men may take SPL and become the main carer for their kids, you will retain more female talent.
There’s a great example of an employer thinking about retaining both female and male talent retention in a recent blog post I wrote about senior managers failing to take SPL. Have a read and take a look at the approach taken by British Land, a FTSE 100 company that genuinely seems to want employees to strike a good work / life balance.
Getting back to SPL in particular, I could think of no better example of what I’m talking about than the book Dads Don’t Babysit, Towards Equal Parenting by David Freed and James Millar. Published just last year, Freed and Millar were inspired to write the book when they took parental leave after becoming parents.
Using a mix of research, interviews and personal insight, the book considers why men aren’t more involved on the domestic front. The crucial point being, however, is that Freed and Millar were asking the question about why men often don’t do more with their kids. In he book, they also highlight where things were going right and put forward ideas for getting guys more involved in family life.
I asked Freed if he agreed with my suggestion that SPL has created welcome and much needed discussion about the role of dads. He agreed and used a superb pub analogy to demonstrate his point.
“SPL has always been a half-hearted policy which has inevitably lead to a shockingly low uptake with 95% or more dads not taking even a week,” said Freed. He continued: “SPL is like an empty pint glass. You need the glass to be able to drink the pint. You need to fill the glass.
“The real challenge is getting people to expect more dads and showing dads that they can really benefit from taking a more active role. That’s the good ale that will get equal parenting moving.
“SPL, like the empty pint glass, has really got people talking and has got more dads sharing their experiences about parenthood. The more conversations we have, the more we’ll be prompting parents to look for the beer tap but there’s still a long way to go.”
I also thought it was very telling that the long-established part-time and flexible working website Workingmums.co.uk recently launch an off shoot aimed at dads. Can you guess what it’s called? Yes, that’s right, it’s called Workingdads.co.uk!
Gilliam Nissim, the founder of Workingdads.co.uk, said: “When I launched Workingmums.co.uk 12 years ago, the appetite for flexible new roles was coming almost exclusively from women. That has changed. Dads want more time with their children, more equal parenting and employers who acknowledge that.”
When Workingdads.co.uk was launched, Nissim highlighted the case of a dad called Sam Jones. In a further example of a man inspired to discuss the role of fathers because of SPL, Jones explained he had issues with his employer when he became a dad. Jones made clear he wanted to take SPL but said it caused “havoc” and there was talk from his manager about blocking the leave.
Jones said: “We seem to live in a society in Britain where every ounce of sweat and work is expected by our employers, and both men and women are expected to leave their children in order to go to work. Men who want to play an active role are often prevented from doing so because we come up against negative attitudes outside the home.”
I couldn’t resist putting my theory to Jo Swinson MP, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats and the individual who spearheaded the introduction of SPL back in the days of the Con/Lib Dem coalition Government (before Brexit was even a word).
Swinson initially said the idea that SPL had lead to greater discussion about fatherhood was a “very fair comment.”
Swinson expanded on this by saying: “Shared parental leave is good for children, good for families and good for equality in the workplace.
“That close contact between parent and baby is crucial for bonding and attachment – enabling fathers to spend time with their newborn is an investment in that child’s future.
“Both employers and the government must do more to build on the success of shared parental leave so far. That must include longer dedicated leave for dads, enhanced pay, and much greater promotion by government and business.
“We also need a government willing to invest in better pay for maternity, paternity and parental leave.”
Swinson’s final remarks are very interesting. She doesn’t just comment on the state of play now, but looks to the future.
While I welcome the discussion and debate about men and their roles as fathers, there is a desperate need to overhaul SPL. While I have noticed greater discussion about fatherhood since the introduction of SPL, a disproportionate amount focuses on how men cope with fatherhood in the early years of their kids’ lives.
As someone with school-aged children, I see little public discussion of the challenges and pressures faced by men like me. You don’t stop being a father when your children stops wearing nappies.
Also, and this is a point made by research charity the Fatherhood Institute, SPL has shone a light on how employee benefits for women who have kids are often superior to those offered to men. For SPL to work properly, this needs to be addressed.
SPL is an imperfect policy and its operating in an imperfect world. Nonetheless, it’s great that it’s got us all talking about the role of fathers and fatherhood in the 21st century. We’ve now got to improve SPL, encourage more employers to take it seriously and expand the discussion to include fathers of older children.