Paternity rights: better rights for new dads will improve equality

Compare paid paternity leave levels with other countries and you’ll find the UK has some of the worst rights for new fathers in Europe.

The speech made last week by Nicola Brewer, Equalities and Human Rights Commission chief executive, highlighted the fact that the UK’s parental rights currently support the idea that fathers are “optional seasoning” on children’s lives, while mothers are the main carers (‘Maternity leave could damage women’s careers’,, 14 July).

By improving maternity rights over the past decade, policy makers have unintentionally entrenched gender stereotypes. Falling numbers of women in the upper echelons of private and public sector organisations reflect this.

That the majority of recruitment agencies have been asked by employers to avoid putting forward women of child-bearing age  shows just how embedded sex discrimination is in our employment culture. Unlawful or not, it is the risk of maternity leave that employers, particularly smaller ones, are considering during the hiring process.

Enabling the optional transfer of mothers’ benefits to fathers for the second six months of leave, as outlined in the Work and Families Act 2006, will help a little. But it is HR who can really start to make a difference.

To larger employers, parental leave and pay are usually part of a suite of benefits that make them a great place to work, and are usually set way above statutory levels. But very few companies offer paternity rights at levels that begin to compare to maternity rights. It will be a bold employer that does so, but one that will start to make a real impact on equality in the workplace.

If dads had the right to just 12 weeks’ paternity leave paid at 90% salary, then surely employers who want to avoid women of child-bearing age would equally want to avoid potential new fathers. Even the most unscrupulous employer cannot ask a recruitment agency that.

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