Encouraging men to take a greater share in parental caring responsibilities can have a profound effect on female career progression. On International Women’s Day, Lauren Touré looks at policies abroad and what employers can do to champion parental leave.
Men still make up the vast proportion of leadership roles in the UK and earn on average 14% more than women. But to close this gap, we are essentially asking men to relinquish their historical gender dominance.
It is integral that steps are taken to level the playing field. Often we can do this by facilitating tailored professional development for an under-represented group, such as mentoring, sponsorship and board-shadowing. But are these doing enough to get more women into leadership positions?
Revising policy to promote inclusivity can be a better way. Shared parental leave was introduced in 2015 and permits parents to share up to 50 weeks’ leave, 37 of which are paid. This gives new parents more choice about their caring arrangements, allowing them to take the leave at the same time, and/or swap between themselves. They have the gift of being able to find a situation that works for their family and their respective careers.
[Not taking parental leave would only] feed the myth that to be a real man in the workplace you don’t take baby leave, you keep your head down” – Bim Afolami MP
However, take up has been low and the government recently launched a campaign (the second in as many years) to promote the benefits of fathers taking a greater share in caring duties during the first year of their child’s life.
Across the globe parental leave policies vary; in many Nordic countries there is a general policy of 12 months’ paid parental leave to be shared among parents however they wish, while Australians get 18 weeks’ semi-paid parental leave.
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One place the UK should look to is Quebec. Canada has 50 weeks’ paid parental leave to be shared among parents, but the province of Quebec changed its policy to add five weeks’ paternity leave that only the father could take off.
This has seen an increasing number of fathers in the province taking time off work to be with their young children, with many increasing the share of parental leave they take as well. The UK could take inspiration from the Quebec model to consider enhancing its own policy to incorporate some of these factors.
Shared parental leave
Quebec found that fathers who are more involved in the early stages of childcare reported an increased connection with their child and a more trusting relationship with their partner, which resulted in a greater feeling of responsibility and led to increased family involvement later in life.
The UK’s shared parental leave policy has obvious benefits to women, but men can also gain significantly. Men can develop real empathy for the women who have historically taken this role and will be able to model these inclusive behaviours to their colleagues.
Crucially, they will gain the opportunity find new ways of managing their work-life balance, which they may not have previously been given permission to.
A high profile role model for this is Bim Afolami, who became the first male MP to vote by proxy while on parental leave.
Afolami, who followed female MP Tulip Siddiq, who was the very first MP to vote by proxy while on parental leave, said it was important to him to be vocal about the decision to take parental leave because people who do not “feed the myth that to be a real man in the workplace you don’t take baby leave, you keep your head down”.
It is worth noting that the House of Commons is not known for its revolutionary working reforms. While in the midst of managing a period of historical political and national change in the UK, it has made its working practices more flexible. Surely more workplaces could promote similar attitudes?
Staff have the potential to be more productive, committed, and suitably equipped for being better leaders if they are encouraged to take time off to bond with their child”
Perhaps if and when the government revisits its shared parental leave policy, it might want to consider how employers – particularly SMEs – are supported. At minimum, support could mean practical guidance about how to manage and plan for staff on leave. At best, this could take the form of financial compensation for employers to top up or part-fund parental leave pay, which would help encourage men who are concerned about the loss of wages to take advantage of the scheme.
Employers had expressed concerns when shared parental leave was announced in 2013. The Institute of Directors said the plan was a “nightmare” that would “heap yet more burdens on struggling employers”.
The challenge is the ability for employers to be sustainable in a modern and increasingly global market, as they would inevitably need to make policy, process and system changes that will incur some financial and resource compensation. As would they invest in new IT systems, or a more suitable office, they must also invest in the future of their working culture.
Investment from employers in company culture through embracing shared parental leave policy will undoubtedly create a more inclusive and engaging environment for staff, improve retention and attract a greater pool of talent.
Staff have the potential to be more productive, committed, and suitably equipped for being better leaders if they are encouraged to take time off to bond with their child.
Employers can further enhance the benefits of parental leave by doing the following:
- Promoting the existence of shared parental leave and what it involves
- Building parental leave into a comprehensive programme that seeks to change the current perception of ‘a career break’ to a ‘career development opportunity’
- Encouraging soon-to-be parents to outline their intentions and ambitions with their line manager and HR as soon as appropriate
- Plotting parents’ development journey, from announcement to return, to identify opportunities for upskilling, training and development
- Viewing parental leave as an opportunity to facilitate strategic workforce planning by identifying new developmental roles for parents and their colleagues.
Shared parental leave will help the workforce as a whole to become more agile, willing to upskill and flexible in applying themselves when both parents return to work. It is important employers begin to champion parental leave to improve gender diversity at all levels.