Shared parental leave: one step closer to Sweden

All about shared parental leave: how you can take it, why it’s important, and what the future holds

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For simplicity this guide is written from the point of view of a dad who is living with their child’s mother. Shared parental leave is also available to mums, same-sex couples, adopters and step-parents. For complete details see the government’s official guide at https://www.gov.uk/shared-parental-leave-and-pay/overview.


Dads get to spend two weeks with their new baby before they have to go back to work, right?

Not any longer! Since April 2015 many dads in the UK have had the ability to take up to 50 weeks off work to look after a new baby.

It’s called shared parental leave, and in my opinion it’s a hugely positive move toward a modern and equal parenting culture, leaving behind the stone-age family model where women must do the childcare and housework and men must provide for the family.

Take up so far has been poor though – around 0.5% to 2% of those eligible according to one survey – and the change has not been without its critics.

In the hope of encouraging more men to take it, this is my guide to shared parental leave: what it is, why we need it, its strengths and drawbacks, and my hopes for the future.

What does shared parental leave give dads?

Shared parental leave allows mums to transfer up to 50 weeks of their maternity leave to the dad for them to take instead. This is in addition to the normal 1 or 2 weeks of ordinary paternity leave that dads already get. The 50 weeks can be shared between mum and dad more or less however they choose. They can even take it at the same time, or split it into two or three alternating blocks of time off work.

It’s not some sort of scheme that a handful of benevolent employers can opt into if they choose; it’s a right that dads have under law and employers can’t refuse (subject to a few caveats).

Dads can also claim up to 37 weeks of the 39 weeks of maternity pay that the mum would have received. Bear in mind that this is at the government’s statutory pay rate of £139.58 per week (or 90% of your normal weekly earnings, whichever is lower), and does not include any extra maternity pay that the mother’s employer might have paid her. A few employers are offering enhanced pay to dads to match what they pay women on maternity leave, but sadly this is still a rarity.

Crucially the mother has to agree to the dad taking leave, and must sign a form agreeing to end her maternity leave early. If the mother has her heart set on taking all 52 weeks of maternity leave then shared parental leave can do nothing for the dad: his best options to spend more time with his children would be unpaid parental leave (which employers are obliged to grant if you meet the criteria and provide enough notice), or to ask his employer to consider flexible working arrangements or a leave of absence (which they are not obliged to grant).

There is, of course, some finer print here. I strongly recommend you read the government’s official advice before making any decisions.

Who is eligible to take it?

Again, chapter and verse is in the gov.uk guide but, in short, to take shared parental leave from a dad’s point of view:

  • You must have parental responsibility for the child, and either married to its mother or living with both mother and child
  • You must have been employed continuously by the same employer for at least 41 weeks (around 9.5 months) before the baby’s due date, and remain employed by the same employer while you take shared parental leave
  • The mother must have worked for at least 26 of the 66 weeks before the due date, and have earned at least £390 in 13 of those weeks. That can include contract or self-employed work
  • The mother must be willing to curtail her maternity leave to allow you or her (or both of you) to take shared parental leave
  • You and the mother must both give your respective employers at least 8 weeks notice

To claim the statutory shared parental pay you also need to give your employer 15 weeks notice of the due date and earn at least £112 per week, as is the case today for ordinary paternity leave.

Why was it introduced?

Shared parental leave was a Liberal Democrat policy under the coalition government. It officially came into law in December 2014 but only affects parents of babies born after April 2015.

The main aim is to give parents more choice over how they care for their child in the first year of its life. Under the old system it had to be the mother who took a career break and did the caring while the father went out to work. Now either parent can care for the child while the other one works.

The hope is that the policy will give dads a chance to play a bigger role in the life of their young child. This is not only a good thing for dads but good for kids too: more time with their fathers beyond the usual weekends and holidays has been linked to improved performance at school.

…[A]nalysis shows that fathers’ leave, father’s involvement and child development are related … This study finds some evidence that children with highly involved fathers tend to perform better in terms of cognitive test scores

Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD) study (link)

Shared parental leave is a good thing for women as well. Instead of the burden of childcare automatically falling on mothers, women now have a realistic option to return to work sooner if they want to, reducing disruption to their careers while keeping childcare within the close family.

It also reduces incentives for employers to discriminate illegally against mothers on the grounds of childcare and absence from work: the more men that take parental leave then the less reason there is to discriminate. With the Equality and Human Rights Commission recently reporting that three quarters of mothers have experienced some form of discrimination on return to work, and with as many as one in nine being forced out of their jobs as a result of having children, this is a big deal.

Finally, research shows that men who share responsibility for childcare during the first year are more likely to continue to do so as the child grows up, as well as sharing responsibility for housework and other chores that historically have usually been left to women. A more egalitarian division of household and childcare work means that it’s not always the mum’s career that is constrained by it.

All in all, shared parental leave makes the gender playing field a little more level, at least in theory.

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Of course, none of the above means that mums are forced to go back to work and dads to look after the kids. The old system of a year of maternity leave for mums and two weeks for dads is still available if that’s what works best for a particular family.

Perhaps in a world where ‘having a family’ becomes something that excludes both mothers and fathers from top jobs, professions … will be forced to stop shrugging and start doing something differently

Sarah O’Connor (@sarahoconnor_), Financial Times employment correspondent (link)

So, is the UK now as progressive as Sweden when it comes to parenthood?

Shared parental leave is a small step forward but it’s fair to say it’s not a silver bullet for parenting equality. For it to deliver benefits it needs lots of dads to take it, and sadly it seems that take up so far has been very low – just 0.5% to 2% of those eligible. In my view that is largely down to two things.

First, employers are not legally obliged to pay men on shared parental leave the same enhanced pay that they do women on maternity leave, and it seems that nearly 70% are choosing not to. That means the majority of dads will end up with only the meagre statutory pay, whereas their female partners could benefit from anything up to 100% of their normal salary if they were to take maternity leave instead. As much as dads might want more time to spend with their baby or be more responsible for childcare, few families will want or be able to accept a huge loss of earnings to do so.

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Second, there exists in the UK a deep stigma attached to men who do childcare: a belief that it is not masculine or is a lazy option for a man. You don’t need to look far in most companies to find people, usually men, who believe that raising children is not something that serious career-focussed men should do (the same people often claim to support gender-equality in pay and promotion decisions, although in my opinion the two viewpoints are contradictory: you can’t claim to treat women equally if you expect them to bear the burden of childcare alone).

Many men are reluctant to take time off when their children are born, discouraged by the raised eyebrows of their bosses and colleagues

Nick Clegg (link)

Working dads are no doubt worried that turning their backs on their careers, even temporarily, will be interpreted by many as lack of seriousness and dedication, and will damage their career prospects. Dads who would otherwise love to have more time with their newborns feel that to do so could put their future career at serious risk.

They have good reason to be worried: data suggest that part-time men face a bigger pay penalty in their hourly pay than part-time women, showing that employers do indeed discriminate against men who choose a path that prioritises something other than work.

More than 87 per cent of men say they would like to share parental leave with their partner after the birth of their child but most are reluctant to ask their bosses

Slater and Gordon study (link)

Do men really want to do childcare?

Suppose, however, that the reluctance of men to take leave is not just down to pay and social stigma. Is it possible that men just don’t want to do childcare and would prefer to leave it to their female partners?

Some surveys seem to support this conclusion, though others contradict it. One, by Glassdoor, a recruitment web site, found that only 23% of men under 50 agreed with the statement that ‘new parents should share parental leave. Given the amount of recent mainstream media coverage chronicling the rise of the hands-on dad, this was surprising to see.

Presuming that the respondents to this survey were commenting on the general principle of sharing parental leave rather than their personal likelihood of doing so – and the survey results provide little context to help discern whether that is the case – then it is a disappointing statistic. It seems British dads might really think that childcare is a woman’s job, and no amount of equal pay would persuade large numbers of them otherwise.

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Perhaps this is where the comparison with Sweden is helpful though. Although dads looking after children is now an accepted and normal part of Swedish culture, it wasn’t always so. In 1974, the first year that childcare leave was available to Swedish dads they, as in Britain today, took just 0.5% of all childcare leave days. After four decades of increasingly progressive paternity leave policy Swedish dads now take 25% of them. Similarly in Germany the proportion of dads taking extended paternity leave rose from 3% to 20% within the first two years of the policy being introduced.

It goes to show that significant numbers of men can and will do childcare given realistic and workable options to do so, and with some passage of time. Whether it demonstrates true equality though is debatable: Swedish dads still only tend to take the minimum amount of leave; that which they would otherwise forfeit if they didn’t take it. The rest is, of course, left for women.

So you’re saying that all men should take leave?

Not at all. Every family should be free to choose what works best for them. In many cases it might make most sense for the mum to do all the childcare.

But all families with both parents in work should at least consider and discuss whether there is benefit to them in the dad taking some or all of the leave, rather than the automatic presumption that the mother will do it.

Has everybody has embraced this change?

Not quite. Opposition has mostly been from businesses concerned that shared parental leave will mean greater costs and administrative burden for them. This is a lame excuse as far as I’m concerned: in most cases, every day of shared parental leave taken by a dad is offset by a day that a woman is back at work, so the costs are unlikely to be overwhelming unless you run a male-dominated company or you value your male employees more than your female ones. The government’s estimated cost of shared parental leave to UK businesses is £17.1m; or something like 0.03% of what they currently pay in corporation tax.

Aside from the concerns of businesses there are some genuine worries about the impact of shared parental leave on mothers and maternity leave. Some are concerned that the introduction of shared parental leave would lead employers to revoke their enhanced maternity pay packages for fear of litigation from men on shared parental leave demanding equal benefits.

Although it’s still early days, that fear appears not to have been borne out. The January 2016 Working Families briefing found that only 1% of employers have reduced their maternity leave benefits as a result of shared parental leave, and only 9% raised litigation as a potential concern when asked. Furthermore, the only case to date along these lines (Shuter v Ford Motor Co Ltd) found in favour of the employer.

Another concern is that shared parental leave might make it less common for mothers to take a full year away from work, putting pressure on some to return to work before they are ready. Although I think there are some legitimate reasons for concern here, not least around breastfeeding, it’s a double-edged sword: if it really becomes so much more common for men to do childcare that women feel under pressure to return to work sooner, then shared parental leave will have delivered a great many benefits for women too.

What more is needed?

The lack of equal pay, and the social stigma and career risks that men face when choosing to perform childcare are both significant threats to the adoption of shared parental leave and its ability to deliver benefits to men, women and children.

I plan to write a lengthier post on this in the future, but in short I believe the following improvements are essential to encourage more men to take leave:

  • Equal pay: Introduction of a legal requirement for employers to pay men and women equally for any childcare leave. This would address the financial penalty that families face when dads do the childcare (or looking at it the other way around, the bonus they get to keep women at home). There is, naturally, opposition to this from businesses.
  • Reserved time for dads: It’s hard to encourage dads to take shared parental leave when they fear they will face discrimination as a result. But the only way to reduce the discrimination is to make it more normal for dads to take leave. To address this we need a clear and incontrovertible reason for dads to take leave in the form of a use-it-or-lose-it period, like Sweden’s, that can only be taken by dads. The two weeks dads currently have is insufficient.

Evidence is very clear on the importance of reserved leave in promoting take-up by fathers. There is no good policy reason for delaying action…

Maternity Action (link)

A more controversial idea is the abolition of all but the first two weeks of maternity leave, with mums taking any leave beyond that fortnight as shared parental leave in the same way that dads do. The practical effect of this, assuming that employers transfer whatever enhanced maternity pay benefits they currently offer into shared parental pay benefits instead, is that mums would no longer have first dibs on all 52 weeks of leave: both parents would have an equal right to take some.

I’ll admit to being unsure on this one. On the one hand, having mums enshrined in law as the sole gatekeepers of their children’s care does little to help fix the stereotype of women as lead childcarers and dads as having a backseat role. On the other hand it’s not hard to see how removing a mother’s right to maternity leave in favour of equal rights for mums and dads could be seen as taking away from women one area where they are currently in the driving seat. Ultimately, however, most parents will be able to agree on how to split the leave between themselves regardless of what the law says, so this could be a moot point.

Will these improvements to be implemented?

The shared parental leave legislation is due a review in 2018. Some changes are already afoot.

In October last year George Osborne announced the government’s intent to extend the policy to grandparents. I have mixed feelings over this one too: whilst it’s good that families will be given more options to manage their childcare and their work, it does nothing to help make childcare more of a normal thing for dads to do, especially as it’s more than likely that most grandparental childcarers will also be women. Osborne even tacitly reinforces this when he says (underline is mine):

…half of mothers rely on grandparents for childcare…

Statement from HM Treasury and George Osborne (link)

…which says it all really.

Sadly, as things stand, that is all we’ve heard on the proposals for 2018. I sincerely hope that more changes are in the pipeline.


Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, HR specialist, or an expert in this legislation. This article is based on my understanding of the rules, having taken shared parental leave myself. I strongly recommend you consult the official government advice before making decisions.

 

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