Shared parental leave: how to help fathers feel comfortable taking time off

Shared parental leave fathers
How should employers support new fathers who decide to take shared parental leave? Photo: WestEnd61/REX

Soon we will see the first parents eligible for shared parental leave take advantage of the new right. Policy aside, Jeremy Davies considers how employers can create a culture where it is business as usual for fathers to take longer periods of leave or share childcare.

It is men, rather than women, who report the most dissatisfaction with work-life balance”

Next month, the first British working dads could be heading home from work to look after their new babies full-time for as long as 50 weeks. Their jobs will be held open for them, and they will receive state-guaranteed pay for most of that time.

Under the new shared parental leave (SPL) arrangements, which apply to families expecting babies on or after 5 April, eligible mothers can transfer their maternity leave and pay to their partners – if they too are eligible – after just two weeks.

For babies born on time, 19 April is the first day on which pioneering dads could be swapping their briefcases for changing bags.

Very few mums are likely to want to go back to work full time so quickly after giving birth, so the deadline should pass unnoticed in most workplaces.

However, over the coming months a small but significant number of new parents are likely to make use of this new opportunity to share their breadwinning and caring roles more evenly.

The Government expects around 6,000 dads to take SPL in the first year of the scheme, although the TUC estimates that two-fifths of working dads will not qualify for the benefit.

As with any such reform, shared parental leave will present challenges to some employers – especially those in traditionally male-dominated sectors.

But there are huge benefits too, and there is much you can do as an employer to be supportive of this cultural shift. Here are three ways you can make the most of it and turn it to your advantage.

1. Realise why involved fathers are good for business

Today’s fathers are already doing far more hands-on parenting than men of previous generations – and they want to achieve a better balance between their work and domestic commitments.

In the UK it is men, rather than women, who report the most dissatisfaction with their work-life balance.

There is good evidence that dads who are able to successfully juggle their professional and domestic commitments are happier and more productive in the workplace as a result. A US study recently found that fathers who spent relatively more time with their children enjoyed more enrichment in the relationship between work and family life.

And allowing dads as well as mums to take an active role as parents also helps empower women in the workplace.

At the moment, it could be argued that women experience a “motherhood penalty” in the workplace, whereas men get a “fatherhood bonus” because of preconceptions around their breadwinner status.

Too many employers assume that mothers will be the ones who shoulder the caring responsibilities and will therefore be less committed to work, while dads will want to ‘step up’ to their provider role now they have a little one to feed.

By supporting dads to play a more active role at home – and being ‘out and proud’ about doing so – you can really start to dismantle this kind of old-fashioned thinking.

2. Look at your parenting leave and pay offers

Nick Clegg has described shared parental leave as an attempt to “sweep away the Edwardian rules which hold back those families working hard to juggle their responsibilities at home and work”.

Many families do struggle, and the UK’s parental leave system is very traditional in the sense that it places responsibility for looking after young children firmly in mothers’ hands.

Consequently, the gap between maternity and paternity leave entitlements in the UK has been the highest in the developed world.

Shared parental leave will offer some families the choice to do things differently – but it is far from perfect. It is, in fact, a form of transferable maternity leave.

Rather than giving dads an independent right to take time off to spend with their babies, it still leaves women fundamentally ‘in charge’ at home – a key factor in the ‘motherhood penalty’.

The eligibility rules mean that around two-fifths of dads won’t even have the option of sharing leave, because their partner is not in work, is not an employee (rather than a “worker”) or has not worked for the same company for 26 weeks before the “qualifying week” (the 15th week before the baby is due).

And the low rate of statutory shared parental pay means that many of those dads who are eligible for shared parental leave simply will not be able to afford to take it.

Employers that are truly serious about levelling the playing field between female and male employees need to think carefully not just about how much time new mums and dads can take off, but also how that time is paid.

Statutory maternity (after the first six weeks), paternity and shared parental pay is reimbursed at lower-than-minimum-wage rates.

Many employers already enhance maternity pay; some also allow dads to take more than the statutory two weeks’ paternity leave, and enhance the rate at which it’s paid – sometimes at the level of their full wage.

Some larger and more progressive employers, including the civil service, PwC and Citi, have said they will enhance shared parental pay too (for both parents).

Follow suit and you will send a clear message to your male and female staff, that your company is serious about recognising their family commitments.

There is no legal obligation to enhance shared parental pay, but if you enhance maternity pay and do not do the same with shared parental pay, think carefully about what message this sends out.

3. Encourage staff to be open about parenthood

To turn shared parental leave into a positive opportunity for your business, get out there and promote it.

And bear in mind that if you are not enhancing the pay that goes with it, you could find it hard to present yourself as a truly progressive employer.

Creating a good SPL package is not enough in itself, however. Key to making the most of this opportunity is creating an environment in which everyone feels comfortable talking openly about their domestic commitments, without the fear it will damage their career.

Do not think just about parents of babies – what about those with older children too? Are they able to work flexibly, to fit in around the demands of bringing up children – doctors’ appointments, parents’ evenings and the like?

These flexibilities should be made available to dads as well as mums,  but do you actively promote the fact that this is the case…and that you expect dads as well as mums to take them up?

Fewer fathers exercise their right to request flexible working, and those who do are less likely to receive a positive response, than their female counterparts – just one of many ways in which mothers’ and fathers’ experiences in the workplace tend to differ.

Moving away from a “long hours” culture and supporting staff at all levels, from senior management through to the shop floor, to see men as in need of support so they can manage their domestic responsibilities, takes time.

Line managers need to be fully briefed and on board with your “gender agenda” – and you will need genuine buy-in from senior executives.

As US organisational psychology professor Adam Grant told the World Economic Forum in Davos recently, it is symbolically hugely important to have men at board level prepared to “walk the walk” as openly committed hands-on dads.

So while getting the policy in place might be a priority right now, in the long-term, it is building a culture of acceptance of family responsibilities that will make all the difference.

Jeremy Davies

About Jeremy Davies

Jeremy Davies is in charge of communications at the Fatherhood Institute, a charity which promotes the role of fathers in caring for children.
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