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Shared parental leave…a policy in need of updating?

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shared parental leave, maternity leave, paternity leave
One of the Government’s shared parental leave posters. Was the policy ever going to work?

Shared parental leave has been in place since April 2015 and new research from the charity Working Families has found that only .5% to 2% of eligible fathers have thus far made use of it. This will come of little surprise to anyone familiar with the policy.

Such low take-up figures prove beyond doubt that shared parental leave needs to be overhauled with better statutory paternity pay for fathers. It also shows the policy needs changing to compel fathers to take SPL.

There are huge cultural barriers in place regarding SPL and improved paternity leave. This very timely article on the BBC website shows it took Sweden almost 40 years and several tweaks to get such a policy working properly.

What is Shared parental leave?

I’m getting ahead of myself here. Many readers probably aren’t all that familiar with SPL. As from April 2015, when a child is born, mum receives a two-week statutory period of maternity leave. The remaining 50 weeks of leave can be shared with the father. In effect both parents could take six months off at the same time, dad could take one month and mum the remainder of the time etc. This old blog post explains it in more detail.

SPL was something the Liberal Democrats pushed very hard for in the previous Government. Realising that men face huge barriers to taking extended time away from the office, the Lib Dems wanted the rules to have some kind of element that encouraged men to take their share of the leave.

As the Swedes found, it was necessary to tell men they must use some of their leave or else they’d lose their entitlement to all it. This forced men to relaise they had great value to add by spending time at home in their baby’s first days. Just as crucially, it also forced employers to accept that men were going to take an extended spell away from the workforce when a child arrived. It took time, but Sweden eventually got the policy working. We must learn from what the Swedes did.

The system we all wanted…and what we got

As originally proposed in the UK, SPL had that element of encouragement for dads. Of course the previous Government was a coalition. In negotiations with its Conservative partners and under pressure from business lobby groups terrified of men actually wanting to spend time with their families, this element was dropped.

Before the introduction of SPL I had the good fortune to meet with both the former Equalities Minister Jo Swinson and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Swinson made clear the policy was about creating a more flexible working culture that would allow dads to play a greater role in their child’s early days while also allowing women to return to work if that was their choice. Clegg reiterated this, but felt that SPL needed to have the element of compulsion. Please remember; Clegg was saying this before SPL was even introduced so he clearly had concerns the policy wasn’t going to work as intended.

The other gaping hole in SPL was the fact that for many families, it simply isn’t affordable. Men are often the main financial providers for their family and the drop from a salary to statutory SPL pay is too much. They may be able to take a couple of weeks or a month off work, but no more.

Where do children feature in all this?

One thing that concerns me are the noises coming out of Whitehall and Government circles. See this quote in today’s press from a Department for Business Innovation and Skills spokesperson;

“Maternity leave is a day one right to help mothers prepare for and recover from childbirth. Shared parental leave is provided to help mothers who want to return to work early to share responsibility for the care of her child with the father or partner.”

That was quite a worrying thing to read. Far from being a way of providing choice to families and helping fathers to get involved with family life, that remark suggests SPL is now seen as a way of simply keeping women economically active.

Such subtleties are further strengthened by Government action. Back in October, the Government announced that SPL would be extended so that working grandparents could take the pay and leave from 2018.

On the face of it, a great way to introduce more flexibility to the system. Dig a bit deeper and the wheels fall off this policy completely.

Firstly, it does nothing for fathers, further sending the message they don’t need to be involved with their kids as the grandparents can pick up any slack. Secondly, this generation of grandparents is well known for being the ‘sandwich generation’. In addition to looking after their own sick and infirm parents, they are increasingly looking after their grandchildren. The Government’s response adds pressure on them to do so. Third, in this age of divorce and remarriage, you could have grandparents with numerous natural and step grandchildren and how do you decide who looks after whose children? If there’s one thing Governments excel at, it’s completely ignoring the existence and needs of step families.

All things considered, it seems that SPL is being used as a tool to keep parents working. That’s quite understandable, but where do the children figure in all this?

Mentality must change

There is another change that must happen for SPL to be successful and that’s one of mentality. How often do you hear of expectant mums and dads talking about the mother “going on maternity leave”? As mentioned above, maternity leave is two weeks. Anything above and beyond that is shared parental leave and parents and employers have got to get used to this.

With maternity pay and leave for women having been in place since 1987, and its introduction happening only after a fierce fight, this was a bitter pill for some to swallow. This is understandable, but such a change merely recognises that men are increasingly involved in family life and want to be involved with their kids. Times have changed and we’ve all got to stop talking about maternity and paternity leave. Such language isn’t helpful.

Working Families’ research

Let’s get back to that research. While take-up of SPL has been quite poor, Working Families’ study paints a picture of employers who have accepted the change in legislation and wish to see it work. Of the 79 employers questioned, a third are offering enhanced paternity pay to fathers in the same way they do mothers who take an extended break after having a child.

A major and perfectly valid concern for employers was that employees would take discontinuous blocks of time off (the policy allows for this). In fact 82% of employees have opted to take their SPL in one continuous block so this hasn’t been too much of a problem.

The Working Families report also noted that men are becoming increasingly aware of the issues faced by women who take maternity leave. Men, the research states, are more understanding of the position many women find themselves in when they become mothers.

Although employers were generally supportive of SPL, training of line managers was identified as a weak point. Some organisations are only now considering reviewing their leave policies. Coming almost a year after the introduction of SPL, that is a bit worrying.

In conclusion

SPL was never going to lead to a revolution. It was one necessary step for introducing greater equality between men and women both on the domestic front and in the workforce. It was always going to take time. As implemented, it was imperfect but nonetheless vital. The low take up shows that better paternity pay and encouragement for dads to take some share of the leave is required. I’ll end by quoting the conclusion to Working Families’ report:

“Employers also told us that mothers are reluctant to ‘give up’ maternity leave. Of course, this is a matter of parental choice but it also demonstrates the need for shared parental leave to evolve further into a meaningful standalone period of paid leave for fathers. Shared parental leave remains a unique opportunity for employers to take positive action in relation to gender equality in the workplace, choice and control in working life, and staff engagement.”

14 thoughts on “Shared parental leave…a policy in need of updating?”

    1. Glad you found it useful Joanne. Lack of paternity pay is one of the biggest equality issues men face at this point in time.

  1. Very interesting John, I’m due to go on shared parental leave in March for 3 months. I feel the government need to do a lot more but they have come a long way to give us what we have now on offer. But the main barrier is the cultural one, which I faced just over a year ago when I was on additional paternity leave. Unsurprisingly the culture and ignorance of dads being primary carer still prevails, heavily.

    1. Oh that culture is firmly in place. Shared parental leave is one way to address it. This was never going to change matters quickly but the noises coming out of Government have changed so much in a matter of months. It’s deeply worrying. If we aren’t careful we’re going ot end up going backwards, not forwards.

  2. Really good post and I agree that SPL needs a lot more work to get it embedded and properly adopted. Whilst companies might change policies to support men, there still needs to be more done to actually encourage fathers to take it. A lot of men I know wouldn’t probably consider it because it’s still not the social norm! I think you’ve mentioned before that the ‘baby’ scene is quite daunting for a Dad because it’s never had to accommodate a large group of fathers.

    One of the other hurdles I see as a mother is breastfeeding. During early months, at least up to 6 months, Mothers are encouraged to breastfeed. For those with a fairly long commute, it means bringing this to an end in order for the Mother to go back to work and the Father to take over – expressing just isn’t a practical option from a logistical or time perspective. Even if a Mother is ready to move their baby to a bottle, I know plenty of babies that at 6 months wouldn’t play ball! I suppose this is the beauty of the Swedish parental leave – it’s about 13 months which means a Mother can still take 9 – 10 months whilst accommodating at least 3 months for the Father.

    1. Yes, breast feeding is an issue. What few people realise is that women have the legal right to express at work, although that is, admittedly, not ideal. For couples who do breast feed, it would make sense for men to take off an additional period at the start and then take several months off towards the end of the leave period. The one thing everybody needs to acknowledge is that a father who is involved from day one stays involved with their kids (reams of academic research proves this). Breastfeeding is a genuine issue and I accept that, but some campaigners argue this is a reason to keep dads away from their kids, at least implicitly. This argument should not be accepted or tolerated.

      1. Oh I completely agree, but I just think the health community need to be a little more pragmatic with breastfeeding beyond 6 months, especially if it’s so a father can take on primary childcare for a period. I’m not disputing the benefits of breastfeeding but mothers are almost made to feel guilty if they stop. The number of times even at 10 months I got told “well done” because I hadn’t completely stopped. I think for mothers to encourage their partners needs the Health Visitor community to be a bit more relaxed.

      2. A very interesting read, however breastfeeding being called ‘an issue’ in your comments, is not encouraging. I became a mother for the first time 3 months ago and after reading a huge amount of studies on the benefits of breastfeeding, I plan on breastfeeding for at least a year, as is recommended, meaning I myself will be taking the full amount of shared parental leave. Expressing and giving a bottle isn’t an option, as our daughter will simply not take a bottle (after several painstaking weeks of trying) and also some of the benefits are lost with milk given via bottle. We have come to accept breastfeeding is what is best for our daughter physically and emotionally and there is no way around it – it is the mum’s job to do the feeding in that first year and dad plays a supporting role. Breastfeeding is incredibly difficult to establish in the beginning and more women need support. The idea of shortening their leave from work, ‘an issue’, as the father then cannot stay at home, is not helpful. A longer period of leave for the father in the beginning would be wonderful on many levels, but mum’s essentially need the period of time for very good reason. It should not be an issue, as women should be encouraged to take this leave in order to do what is best for their child in terms of feeding. Not to mention recovery from pregnancy, birth and all that follows. I haven’t yet come across a women who is physically able to return to work several weeks into her maternity leave for dad to then take over! Dad’s should be able to take a longer period of leave alongside the mother, I believe, but it shouldn’t be instead of the mother in those early months. What happens with childcare down the line after feeding is a different matter and of course, whatever best suits the family, but that first year in my opinion is an extension of pregnancy with child still very much dependent on the mother physically.

        1. Thank you for your comments Ashleigh. Clearly some very strongly held views there!

          In the politest possible way, however, you are missing several important points about shared parental leave. It was not introduced solely to benefit men or to enable women to get back to work more quickly (although the unhelpful comments from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills suggest the present Government view it that way). The new system was introduced to bring flexibility and recognises the fact that families come – and have ALWAYS come – in many different forms.

          You say that in your opinion “it is the mum’s job to do the feeding in the first year.” How do you apply this to a same sex male couple or an adoptive couple where the mother is not lactating? In addition to this, shared parental leave enables men to take an extended period of leave with their partner at the very beginning when the mum is most likely to need support. There were complications after both my children were born and I was needed at home. There was very little extended family support; my wife’s family is 400 miles away and mine 100 miles away. Helping my wife involved taking holiday in addition to my paternity leave. Had I had the benefit of shared parental leave I could have taken time off at the same time as my wife without having to eat into my holiday entitlement.

          It is also deeply unhelpful talking of men merely having a “supportive” role in the early days of their child’s life. Wrong; men should be fully engaged and involved with their offspring and this starts BEFORE the birth. If they see their role as supportive from day one, they will remain supportive instead of being highly involved fathers. There are reams and reams of academic research backing this point up.

          One of the most important routes to breastfeeding success is having a supportive, knowledgeable partner. Speak to any breast feeding expert and this is what hey will tell you. It’s much easier to gain this knowledge and experience by spending time with your partner in the early days. SPL allows men to do this, not cram everything in to two, short, poorly paid weeks.

          Wishing you all the best with your breast feeding journey. Enjoy the first six months. It gets much more difficult when they start crawling at six months.

          1. I should point out I meant supportive role in terms of feeding only, of course dad has a much bigger role! My partner is incredibly supportive of breastfeeding and has been fantastic, I wouldn’t haven’t continued at times without him. Those early weeks are very hard going. And of course, where biological mother is not present nor able to breastfed, the scenario is a different one. But breastfeeding should be encouraged wherever possible and hence, the leave from work necessary for mother.

  3. I already commented on your Facebook share but I’ll say it here as well…

    …SPL worked/works fantastic for our family. For both my girls I went back to work “early” and hubby took the remaining leave. I see SPL being a great way to bring equality i to the workplace and family. No longer can an employer prefer a man over a woman because “she might get pregnant and be off” because the man can also take the parental leave. However attitudes need changing because not sure how many employers have realised this. A prime example of this is whenever hubby & I discussed him taking the SPL everyone would ask him “are your bosses happy with that?” Our reaction is quite simply, they got no choice!! Another example I know of is a young man’s wife was expecting and when the notion of SPL was brought up the boss said “pfft it’s only two weeks, we’ll manage”. Employers need to be better educated about these changes.

    (Oh and yes, I don’t understand why people think that the Dad being the primary caregiver is a “new age” thing. I was raised by my Dad.)

    UK is so behind Sweden but at least we’re way ahead of USA from what I understand. Their maternity leave system is non existent (I think you get 8 weeks there!).

    Now the next step is to make SMP (or SPP) earnings related!! I feel like I need to post about that but I know it’s likely to be controversial.

    (PS – great post! Very thought provoking)

    1. You did indeed leave an excellent comment on my Fb page and thanks for repeating many of your arguments here. Your family is a shining example of how a mum and dad can both be involved with their kids and I bet your offspring are better off for it. I’m afraid the reaction from employers does not surprise me. That said, I was involved in publicising SPL and if employers are claiming not to know anything about it, well, I would argue they’re probably either ignoring it or simply don’t wish to accept it which is wrong, wrong, wrong. WOuld love to see you post on SPP and SMP being earnings related. I can think of one vaguely related precedent as it happens. If a man or woman has served in the armed forces, and is called up to serve again in later life, the Government has to match their present salary. This is apparently why so few people do get called up because once they’ve left the military they get much better paid jobs on civvy street!

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