According to Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, equal parenting – or something close to it – is crucial for women’s career progression. She says: “As women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home…We all need to encourage men to lean in to their families.”
It’s a theme which will come up repeatedly in the weeks to come as the Government announces the outcome of its consultation on shared parenting. The new legislation comes into effect in 2015, but, as minister for women and equalities Jo Swinson told Workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Awards ceremony in November, it will affect people getting pregnant in summer 2014 who may already be planning ahead now. The legislation will allow couples to share maternity leave between them after the first two weeks.
Swinson said it would aid women’s career progression and allow couples to choose whether they wanted to share childcare more equally. She cited a focus group with employers on shared parenting where one employer told Ed Davey, her predecessor at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, “so we won’t be able to employ men now” to illustrate how shared parenting could reduce discrimination against women in the workplace.
The idea is, that parents can share leave in blocks of weeks. They will need to give eight weeks notice if they want to change their plans about maternity leave. “It is helpful to have some certainty so we would encourage parents to give employers an early indication without it being too binding so employers can plan,” said Swinson. She added that employers and parents to be were often nervous to talk about what would happen after the birth, but if they had a conversation before the birth on what they would like to do, even if that changed afterwards, it would “reduce the fear factor”. She outlined how shared parenting could help employers, for instance, she said if someone was in retail and there was a busy period like Christmas coming they could come off maternity leave for that period, keep their hand in and help their employer out.
It all sounds good, but government focus groups anticipate a fairly low take-up of shared parenting. An information campaign is needed so that people know how it will work and what benefits it might give, for instance, allowing dads to become more involved with their children from the get go, something which research shows is a big plus for children’s development as well. Other advantages include reduced tension between couples – research shows parents who share experiences of work and family life are less likely to split up.
Also, once patterns of women as the main carer are established at birth, they can become hard to break once they return to work, resulting in women doing the so-called ‘double shift’ and often being the parent who is most likely to take time off for child-related issues. This can rebound on them if they want to move up the career ladder. It also means men at the top of the ladder may have little practical understanding of what balancing work and family life actually means.
Shared parenting doesn’t need to be 50/50 down the line and at some points in a person’s career it might make more sense for one or other partner to take a greater role in childcare. It just gives families a choice – that that person doesn’t always have to be the mother. Of course, shared parenting is of no benefit to those who are not in a couple. Jo Swinson was asked at the Awards ceremony whether consideration had been given as to whether grandparents could share maternity leave, as this might help single mothers. She said the rationale behind the legislation was to engages fathers more in childcare. Allowing parents to share care with grandparents risked the danger of childcare being split between mothers and grandmothers, once again leaving dads out of the loop. Other legislation, such as extending the right to request flexible working to all workers, could help grandparents, she added.
Employers are becoming more interested in initiatives that directly target dads. This year’s winner of the Workingmums.co.uk Best for Dads Award – the London School of Economics and Political Science – was praised for its workshops which targets dads to be and new dads and gives them the space to talk about issues such as how to negotiate flexible working. Some 37% of male employees at LSE work flexibly. Also impressive was the fact that the workshops for dads are offered to partners of staff who worked in other organisations so spreading the good practice. Imran Iqbal, Group Manager in the Department of Management at LSE, who attended a workshop just after his first child was born and now acts as a mentor to new dads. He says: “It was nice to be with people going through the same thing as me. There were people from all levels within LSE and we were all going through the same emotions and physical exhaustion. I had never had a guy’s point of view. It was really refreshing.”