Will shared parental leave level the playing field for new dads and mums?

28 November 2014

Photo: Planet Vending

Jeremy Davies writes:

Nick Clegg has been making headlines in recent months as a stalwart advocate of parents sharing the responsibility for hands-on caring.

The government’s new, more flexible shared parental leave regime, which launches officially on Monday, has the potential to give those families who are eligible, greater flexibility over who does what after a baby arrives. Leading employers, including the Civil Service, Citibank, Deloitte and PwC, have grasped its significance, pledging to enhance pay rates for dads as well as mums who take SPL.

But how level is the playing field for new mums and dads navigating the post-baby work-life landscape?

NCT’s new Working It Out survey, published today, suggests that for the majority of mums and dads, the choices available to them look depressingly familiar.

Mums in the 1,000-plus survey were 2.5 times more likely than dads to report that their employer offers part-time working hours (70% vs 28%), for example – and dads were a third more likely than mums to report that their employer does not offer flexible working arrangements (47% vs 35%).

Apologetically low rates of paternity pay (the statutory rate of £138.18 is lower than the minimum wage – and only 1 in 6 employers top this up) are also a big issue – such that a significant 1 in 4 dads (23%) surveyed by NCT had taken less than the 2 weeks paternity leave to which they are entitled.   Many of these dads, we know, use annual leave instead, further constraining time they can spend with their families in that important and demanding first year.

So while for many years the trend has been towards greater sharing of caregiving and breadwinning, it’s still the case that women are far more likely to take the lion’s share of responsibility for the former, and men for the latter, when they become parents. And employers, rooted as so many are in traditional beliefs about women being more ‘naturally’ suited to caring, while their menfolk ‘hunt and gather’, have responded in ways that enable women to strike a balance between work and home.

Among those surveyed by NCT, a tiny 4% of dads had worked part-time after their baby was born, compared to 28% of the mums – who were 4 times as likely to work part-time after becoming a mum than beforehand (28% vs 7%). In fact, post-baby, only half (49%) of mums were working full-time – despite 82% having done so before the baby arrived.

SPL is imperfect – many families are ineligible; as a father it offers you no individual personal entitlement to time off with your baby; it offers nothing to self-employed dads – but it’s a step in the right direction. And it’s great to see blue-chip employers starting to blaze a trail for more equal treatment of dads and mums in the workplace.

What we need is employers en masse to understand how SPL could transform their business, and buy in to the cultural shift. Will we ever get to the point where all future dads and mums feel that they could afford to take the leave, and that their careers wouldn’t be ruined as a result?

Let’s hope so. For children’s sake we need to start ‘seeing’ men as fathers as well as workers – just as we see women as mothers – and developing policies that really allow men to ‘lean out’….then communicating them clearly and credibly to managers and staff, and standing by them. This is still hugely counter-cultural – something even the CBI can understand.

A level playing field? We’ve got mountains to climb before we get there.

The Fatherhood Institute offers a range of workplace seminars for dads (and mums). Find out more here.

For more information about the new SPL regime, read this ACAS guidance.

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