2015: the year of shared parental leave and greater equality at work and home?

By J&C Team

2015 sees the introduction of a new right for mums and dads to share the year of leave after their baby is born. It’s a major change, but many employers and employees are still unclear of how it will work despite employees being allowed to request it since early December.

Part of the reason is that the legislation is fairly complex. Only couples who both qualify, having worked for their employer since before the woman got pregnant, will qualify and both have to be earning at least £111 a week during the qualifying period. Employees have to give employers eight weeks notice if they plan to take SPL. They can request discontinuous periods of leave or a single block, but the employer can insist on leave only being taken in one block. A mum and dad can be on leave together, with the mum on maternity leave while the dad is on shared parental leave.

Another reason is that while some employers have really good information on their female employees due to diversity initiatives and because they are pregnant or taking maternity leave, they do not have such data on men. Many only know if a man is a dad if they request paternity leave and, as many dads don’t take this, their information is likely to be an underestimate.

So even some of the more progressive employers are being fairly tentative about the new legislation and adopting a wait and see approach or just beginning to collect data that will help them ascertain what their male employees’ attitudes are to SPL.

The first step is to explain clearly to employees what the legislation entails as they are the ones who have to make the decision about whether it works for their family.

Employers also have some legal issues to consider. If they offer enhanced maternity pay, for instance, they should consider equality issues or they could be open to claims of indirect sex discrimination.

Lawyer Ruth Renton of Artington Legal cites a recent Employment Tribunal case where a father made sex discrimination claims because he was not paid enhanced paternity pay during his additional paternity leave though enhanced maternity pay was offered by Ford to mothers on maternity leave. The Employment Tribunal found that he had not suffered direct discrimination as a man on additional paternity leave did not face the same issues compared to a woman on maternity leave, such as pregnancy, recovery from childbirth and possibly breastfeeding the child.

However, the Employment Tribunal found that offering enhanced maternity pay to mothers and nothing to fathers on additional paternity leave could have amounted to indirect discrimination. But Ford argued successfully that it offered enhanced maternity pay to promote diversity in a male-dominated industry. Renton says companies need to think about the potential implications if they cannot make such a strong argument.

Some employers have already come out and said they will offer the same enhanced pay to dads and mums taking shared parental leave. They include the civil service and City firms like PWC and Deloitte.

They feel this will equal the playing field and make it easier for dads to take the leave, particularly if financial reasons might prevent them from taking it. Financial reasons are often given as the reason why dads might not take SPL, although a growing number of women are now the main breadwinner in their family.

Peer pressure and social attitudes are also key issues. Dads may be worried about asking for SPL if they feel it is not socially accepted or if they feel it may result in a setback to their career progression, as maternity leave has done for women. On the other hand, for social change to take place it requires a vanguard willing to take risks. Social attitudes towards mums who are happy not to be the prime carer of their child will also form part of the equation.

Many employers feel making taking leave – and by extension flexible working for childcare reasons – more acceptable for men through promoting positive male role models is essential for promoting SPL.

The aim of the legislation is primarily to encourage greater equality at home and at work and to give parents greater choice over how they get the whole baby thing to work for them if both parents are working, as they are more and more likely to be doing. Such culture change can take a while, but there appears to be quite an appetite for it. Workingmums.co.uk annual survey showed 44% of mums would consider applying and a recent poll by Enterprise Rent-A-Car put interest at 65%. Whether that translates immediately into requests for SPL is another question.