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Strengthening Shared Parental Leave: how to stop leaving parents behind

Published: 14 Jul 2022

a baby faces towards the camera over a father's shoulder, who we see from the back.

By Jane van Zyl, CEO of Working Families.

When Shared Parental Leave came into effect in 2015, it was welcomed across the board as a decisive step toward gender equality. Catching up with other European countries, the policy was expected to ease expectations on mothers and foster bonding between fathers and their children. Fast forward seven years and Working Families were invited to the Children and Parents Act Committee to discuss why the policy has fallen short of making the promised strides forward.

Shared Parental Leave (SPL) gives families the flexibility to manage childcare in the way that best suits them, but the positive effects don’t end there. The Equal Parenting Project at the University of Birmingham saw improvements in bonding, parental confidence, and child development as a result of fathers using SPL. Yet less than 5% of fathers took up Shared Parental Pay in 2019/2020. We know this figure doesn’t reflect the ambition of many fathers to be more involved in caregiving, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation.

The reasons for such a low take-up are often as individual as families themselves, but there are some clear contributing factors. Employers and HR managers tell us consistently that statutory pay is too low to enable the high earner of the family to take SPL. Existing gender inequality is further entrenched by a policy that ignores that men are currently more likely to be the higher earner, giving families no room to manoeuvre on who is the primary caregiver. Only a well-paid, non-transferable allocation of leave can address the lack of financial incentive eroding the policy’s effectiveness.

The policy also falls short in meeting the needs of the whole labour market. Parents must earn £123 a week and must have been with their employer for 26 weeks, which discounts low earners and the 2.2 million people who have changed jobs in the past 6 months, making almost 10% of the workforce ineligible. Likewise, the self-employed, which our figures show count for 1 in 10 parents, are overlooked. As many as 40% of fathers are ruled out by these criteria, putting the policy’s chance of success in jeopardy from the start. Add to this the poor promotion and perceived complexity reported to us by employers, and it is unlikely SPL was ever going to have its desired impact.

More challenging to address are the cultural norms that undermine the policy. Without dismantling the assumptions that have led to policies being historically designed around the mother as the primary caregiver, we can expect little change. Evidence shows that attitudes towards fathers having a role in caregiving have shifted, yet policies and workplace culture are lagging and can hinder those hoping to realise their aspirations of being more involved. Outdated expectations about roles exist, and while generous maternity policies are now more commonplace to attract and retain women, the same cannot be said about paternity policies.

But change is possible. Our annual Employer Benchmark indicates more companies each year are offering SPL at an enhanced level. As well as increasing loyalty, employers reported perceptions around taking longer periods of leave are changing. As an organisation working with employers, we see innovative policies and progressive practices supporting cultural change, from gender neutral policies to senior executives modelling a balanced approach to work and home life. Trailblazing organisations are recognising the value of flexible working, for both employees and for business success. We need more of these pioneers in business, as well as easier access to flexible working, particularly in such challenging times, and for vulnerable groups that can’t access the labour market without it.

Ultimately, cultural change around SPL can only be precipitated when underpinned by policies that address the financial disincentives for fathers to care. The evidence shows that when employers offer leave and the financial motivation to take it, it’s embraced by fathers and partners. Aviva offers parents equal amount of paid and unpaid parental leave when a new child arrives, including adoption and surrogacy, which has resulted in 80% of dads taking at least five months paternity leave.

Working Families firmly supports the principle behind SPL – to facilitate choice for families. But whilst the policy has been of benefit to a lucky few, too often lower income families and the self-employed have been shut out from sharing these benefits. But scrapping the policy altogether would not remedy the problem, as in the absence of a realistic alternative, SPL is the only mechanism by which fathers can become primary caregivers. Instead, what is needed is a comprehensive approach that reviews the framework of protections and entitlements with a view to strengthening redundancy protections for pregnant mothers and new parents and enhancing levels of pay and leave so that it is financially viable for parents to take the leave they need and are entitled to.

Reforms must avoid reinforcing the status quo, perpetuating the notion that mothers should be the primary caregivers. Instead, any future policy should carry forward the fundamental principle of shared parental leave, that is, enabling fathers and partners to participate equally in caregiving from the beginning of a child’s life. Importantly these rights and protections should also be enjoyed by parents on all types of contracts, not just employees. We look forward to continuing our dialogues with the Government and employers to ensure that more working parents are able to take advantage of SPL.

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