Shared parental leave is coming in later next April and, although employers are preparing for it, most think it will have little impact, at least initially. The evidence from what has happened with additional paternity leave seems to back this up.
Research by law firm EMW last month [March] found only 2% of the 209,000 fathers eligible for additional statutory paternity leave took it in the last year, Men are entitled to up to 26 weeks of additional paternity leave, but only if their partner returns to work before the end of their statutory maternity leave.
EMW suggests the reasons could be in part financial, given that paternity pay is significantly lower than the UK average weekly wage, which makes it financially difficult for men to take time off from work. Both standard and additional paternity pay is £136.78, far below the minimum wage which is on average £221 a week for an adult over 21. However, the same is true for statutory maternity pay. Moreover, a growing number of women are the main earners in their families and the gender pay gap in particular professions only really opens up after women have children, despite the fact that women are more likely to be concentrated in professions which are lower paid than men.
There must be something more than economics that is preventing dads from taking advantage of this leave. It is true that some organisations do offer above the SMP rate through contractual maternity pay schemes, but EMW also suggests concerns about job security may be a reason for low uptake of additional paternity leave among men.
Surely this is also the same for women who take leave, though. What is different is the expectations of women and men as parents. It is still expected that women will take leave and be the main carer despite a growing desire by men to be more involved with their children.
Maternity leave is when traditional roles tend to start to reassert themselves even if couples are very equal in both the work and home spheres beforehand. If the mother stays at home with the baby her role as the main carer is solidified. She is the person doing the caring most of the day, she becomes the childcare expert and she faces a total revolution in her life, moving from life in the office to a very different world of weaning and nappy changing. She is also then the person who faces discrimination in the workplace when she returns. Men may be reluctant to tread this route, having seen what happens to women.
Shared parental leave could make a big impact, but changing social norms takes time. The Government has recently published draft regulations on shared parenting outlining how it will work and employers are already complaining that it will be complicated, which will be another factor weighing against it. Under the rules, mums will be able to shorten their maternity leave and make up to three requests to share their leave with their partner as long as they give eight weeks notice. However, an employer can turn down requests for different periods of leave and require that it be taken in one block.
To push the debate a bit further forward a new website was launched recently. MumsAndDadsNet.com. Launched by Duncan Fisher, co-founder of the Fatherhood Institute, and Jesz Garrett, National Practice Development Manager at The Fatherhood Institute, it aims to be a joint conversation about parenting, backed by the world’s leading thinkers and writers on parenting together.
In his opening blog, Duncan Fisher says current discussions around parenting, which emphasise the role of the mother as prime carer, tend to leave everyone feeling divided. He wants to create a space where mums and dads can talk about parenting together. He says: “Mums talk to mums, dads talk to dads (well, a little bit anyway, and only if they are separated). I just think this is crazy. And boring – because it never quite explains what I see actually happening around me.”
Fisher runs a workplace seminar or webinar called The Domestic Contract where participants discuss who does what at home, how they are influenced by stereotypes and the impact on careers. His last webinar attracted 350 participants. He says: “The feedback on these events is always extremely positive – the topic is fascinating, it is important to how people feel and many participants say they have never seen a discussion about it anywhere else.”
That discussion needs to become a widespread one.