Workhorse fathers: why it's time we gave UK fathers a break
In our previous blog, we presented new analysis of how much an average-earning, full-time employed UK father stands to lose financially if he takes two weeks’ paternity leave paid at the statutory rate, compared to what he could earn if he carried on working. The answer, in case you missed it, is £1,000.
We boiled things down to this single, shocking figure to highlight the complexity of the situation fathers find themselves in, during the early days of their babies’ lives. This is a point where fathers experience two powerful but opposing urges: one, to ‘lean in’ at home, getting to know their baby and providing the mother with much-needed help and support; and the other, to focus on bringing in as much income as possible, at a point where the family income is going to fall (or in some cases has already fallen) off a cliff.
The paternal workhorse
Parents’ own gendered beliefs around men’s and women’s respective roles and capacities as ‘natural’ providers and caregivers, may of course affect their decision-making around leave-taking, but it’s time we acknowledged that these don’t exist in a vacuum.
The truth is, the UK’s parenting leave system positions fathers as workhorses. Our miserly statutory pay rate for paternity leave, which should be designed to pull fathers into the home, pushes far too many of them out of it. And the lack of any individual right to leave beyond the initial fortnight – leave that could equip so many more fathers with the skills and confidence to share the caregiving – adds insult to injury.
The message is loud and clear: “If you want to be an involved father, do it in your own time. As far as the state is concerned, your hands-on caregiving has little value. Dad: your job is to bring home the bacon, and Mum: yours is to look after the children…oh, and maybe bring home some bacon, too…”
Lower-income dads fare worst
Two sets of data released this week confirm that the pitifully low statutory paternity pay rate particularly impacts the ability of lower income fathers to take leave. These are the fathers whose families can least afford to take the hit of a £1,000 drop in income when a new baby arrives, and whose children – already at higher risk of poorer outcomes – could benefit most from their early hands-on involvement.
In their Leave in the Lurch report (June 2023), Pregnant Then Screwed and the Centre for Progressive Policy estimated that a fifth of fathers (20%) are not eligible to paternity leave at all – either because they haven’t been working for their employer for long enough to qualify, or because they’re self-employed. Some of these will find other ways of taking time away from work – annual leave, for example – but many will not. Almost seven in ten (69%) self-employed fathers/second parents in a survey commissioned by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said they’d taken no time off at all when their baby was born.
Both the data show that among those fathers who are eligible, it’s those on higher incomes who are much more likely to take it. As shown in Graph 1, almost nine in 10 (86%) of fathers/second parents whose household income was over £60,000 took statutory paternity leave, whereas only two-thirds (65%) of fathers/second parents with a household income under £25k did so.
Graph 1. Fathers’ use of paternity leave, by household income.
Graph 2, below, shows how enhanced paternity leave (paid by the employer at higher than the statutory rate) was taken, according to the TUC survey, by just one in seven (14%) fathers/second parents with a household income under £25k, compared to more than a third (35%) where the household income was over £80k; and, according to PTS’ survey, by 51% of men with a household income of over £200k.
Graph 2. Fathers’ access to and use of enhanced paternity leave, by household income.
Sources: Pregnant Then Screwed/Centre for Progressive Policy (column 1); TUC (2 & 3)
Fathers' decision making
We probably shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, because more than anything it is cold, hard financial realities – rather than dinosaur attitudes – that shape fathers’ leave-taking decisions.
More than three-fifths (62%) of PTS survey respondents said they would take more leave if the pay increased. The TUC found more than half (53%) of dads/ second parents reporting that their family struggled financially when they took paternity leave. Almost as many (50%) said they hadn’t been able to take enough leave – suggesting they’d taken less than they would if they could have afforded to.
And in Pregnant Then Screwed’s survey, more than two-fifths (43%) of recent fathers who had taken some parental leave but not used the full entitlement available to them, cited financial hardship as the primary reason for returning to work early.
Agents or victims of the patriarchy?
Workplace concerns other than direct financial loss during the paternity leave period may contribute to fathers’ decision-making too, of course. Pregnant Then Screwed found that almost a fifth (17%) of recent fathers who didn’t take all the leave available (either statutory or enhanced) said this was because of pressure from their employers, and 13% went back early for fear of missing out on progression opportunities.
It might be tempting to dismiss these men as agents of the patriarchy rather than its victims. After all, don’t mothers take decisions that run contrary to prevailing workplace cultures, and damage their careers as a result, all the time? Why should fathers be any different?
Well as shown in the charts below, fathers’ paid work commitments remain dramatically different from mothers’ when their children are young, in three key ways:
They're more likely to be in paid work
As shown in Graph 3, fathers are much more likely to be in paid employment than mothers are – throughout their baby’s childhood and especially in the early years. In 2021, 92.8% of fathers with a youngest dependent child aged less than one were employed, compared to 74.1% of mothers; the gap widened to 96.5% for fathers vs 69.8% for mothers whose youngest was aged three.
Graph 3. Percentage of UK fathers and mothers in employment, by age of their youngest dependent child. Source: Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey (Apr-Jun 2021)
They're more likely to work full time
As shown in Graph 4, fathers who have a youngest child aged 0-2 are also much more likely to work full-time.
Graph 4. Percentage of UK parents whose youngest dependent child is aged 0-2, working full-time. Source: Office for National Statistics Working and Workless Households in the UK (Oct-Dec 2022)
They work longer hours for pay
And as shown in Graph 5, fathers’ time spent on paid work is higher too, with 94.6% working 30 hours per week and upward, and 18% more than 45 hours a week.
Graph 5. Parents with youngest dependent child age 0-2: working hours. Source: Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey (Apr-Jun 2021)
Give dads a break
For all these reasons, fathers have a sound rationale for exercising caution in their dealings with their employers: their decisions around leave for parenting are likely to have a disproportionate impact on family finances in Year 1 of the baby’s life and beyond – including in dual-earner households.
This latest data puts to bed once and for all the idea that fathers don’t take paternity leave because they’re lazy, selfish or uninterested. If they don’t take it, it’s almost certainly because they can’t afford to – or more accurately, their households can’t afford for them to do so. It’s time, in more senses than one, to give dads a break.
Making the system better
In our Daddy Leave working paper, published last year, we outlined our ideas for how the UK’s parenting leave system could be reformed. In the system we describe:
Dads would have their own individual entitlement to six weeks’ well-paid leave in their child’s first year: two weeks’ paternity leave (taken at the time of the birth) and four weeks’ parental leave (taken within the first year, ideally solo).
All this leave would be paid at a high salary replacement level – ideally 90% (like mums get for the first six weeks), with a cap for higher earners. And there would be a Paternity Allowance, to provide help for fathers who don’t qualify for these paid leaves – including self-employed dads.
As an absolute minimum, the existing two weeks of paternity leave would be paid at 90%. Right now, it’s not even paid at the level of the National Living Wage. What does that say about the value we attach to men’s hands-on involvement as fathers?
A better parenting leave system would cost money. But the benefits – for our children, for our children’s mothers, for gender equality and for national productivity, as well for fathers themselves – could be huge. We will continue to push for change, and welcome the prospect of working with other organisations who share our vision.
How can you help?
Support our campaign for six weeks’ well-paid leave for dads, by taking our poll
If you work for a small or medium sized employer, share your experience of navigating the financial and other pressures of early parenthood by taking our Transition to Parenthood survey
If you’ve missed out on paternity leave, because you couldn’t afford to take it, or weren’t eligible, and would be happy to share your story, please email our Head of Impact and Communications Dr Jeremy Davies at j.davies (at) fatherhoodinstitute.org
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