Cojones just won’t cut it: we need more support for new dads

29 April 2014

Jeremy Davies writes:

Our latest research summary presents strong evidence that new dads taking time off work to look after their babies is good news – not just for them, but for their children, and their children’s mothers.

Deputy Prime Minister Mr Clegg’s wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez understands this very well. Last week she threw down the gauntlet to working fathers, calling on them to stand up and be counted as ‘out and proud’, visible, care-giving men with ‘cojones’ (a Spanish word apposite to the topic of reproduction).

But on their own, ‘cojones’ aren’t enough to bring about the kind of sharing of caring and breadwinning Mr Clegg professes to support.

Most British dads do take time off around the time of the birth, but well-paid paternity leave is still the exception rather than the rule. In our recent blog for the Daily Telegraph we made the point that for many eligible dads, paternity leave as it is currently designed is unaffordable – paid as it is at below-minimum-wage-level. And it remains the case that for many new fathers – those who work for themselves or haven’t worked long enough for their employer to qualify, for example – even this lowly paid benefit lies out of reach; something Working Families has also spoken out against in a new blog and report.

Mr Clegg has made it his personal mission to ‘walk the talk’ as a hands-on dad. We welcomed his call for an end to ‘Edwardian’ rules around work and family last week – but we also called for changes that could turn this soundbite into something with real substance.

We know that the Coalition’s introduction of shared parental leave from April 2015, far from ushering in a new era of gender-equitable parenting, is unlikely to be a game-changer. The new leave is in fact transferable maternity leave. On a practical level, relatively few families will be eligible, dads who take the leave will be paid very little and negotiations with employers could be complex; take-up is likely to be low.

And culturally, the new system fails to challenge the traditional model of placing responsibility for looking after babies firmly in mums’ hands. So employers will continue to treat men and women differently, instinctively viewing their female employees as less committed and therefore less valuable. Let’s not forget that a recent survey placed the UK 18th out of 27 OECD countries in terms of the scope and fairness of women’s employment.

So Mr Clegg is right that our parenting leave system needs reform, and it’s great to witness his wife’s enthusiastic support for the cause. But deep down they must both know that the battle for a genuinely liberating, flexible parenting leave system (as outlined here) is still far from won.

We need dads to have their own, independent eligibility to substantial, well-paid time off, within a flexible system that incentivises dads to take it – because otherwise it’s lost to the family. We need paternity leave to be paid at Living Wage Level, as a minimum. And we need family services that take dads seriously, because they’re inspected on that basis.

Cojones or no cojones, we need a rethink.

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