It’s Father’s Day next weekend and so there are inevitably several polls out about paternity leave. You can understand why it seems an appropriate hook. The problem is that there’s not much focus on dads the rest of the year and that the focus on dads that there is seems almost entirely to centre on paternity leave, Shared Parental Leave or equal parental leave. The bit after that – the long parenting bit – doesn’t get much of a look-in. Maybe I’ve been doing this for too long and I’ve become jaded and, of course, parental leave is crucial – it’s the start of the journey [to use the kind of reality tv language that we are all steeped in today]. The patterns you get into from the start of family life can play a big part in shaping how you parent later on and, while there has been a lot of focus on the also critical area of childcare, without more equal sharing of the load it is nearly impossible for women to compete more equally, or at least fairly, at work.
Yet the news on paternity leave uptake has been depressingly consistent. A TUC poll out last week
shows half of fathers take less paternity leave than they want to and a fifth take no leave at all. It’s not that there has not been some progress. While take-up of Shared Parental Leave remains low for many reasons to do with the way it was set up, it has promoted movement among some employers towards equal parental policies, some of which have high take-up levels
. These policies generally allow for several weeks or months off on full pay, overcoming the main barriers to paternity leave take-up – money.
The problem is that, despite the proven benefits to families and to women in particular, most employers say they can’t afford enhanced policies for fathers [with many not offering enhanced leave to mums either]. There is therefore a strong campaign for changes to statutory leave, allowing dads to access up to six weeks of 90% of their pay, as mums do. There are a lot of problems with statutory leave for mums too, of course. The UK statutory rate is extremely low, forcing many women back to work earlier than they would like. What is needed is a fundamental review of parental leave policies.
Another issue, aligned to pay, is mindset. That takes longer to change, but things have certainly been moving in the right direction. Nevertheless, it is still expected that dads are the main breadwinners and so need to keep working when mums are on leave. This mindset also applies later down the road to things like flexible working, with some employers and others being opposed to – or less accepting of – dads working flexibly.
The problem is that many of our laws and ways of working are built on a model which no longer applies to most people – a model which assumes that dads are the main breadwinners. Tweaking some bits here and there doesn’t address the fundamental underpinnings of the model. We have to interrogate every part of it and include dads in every aspect of parenting – and indeed include men in every aspect of care in general – not just parental leave. Articles about childcare or any aspect of child development, education or wellbeing should not be directed mainly at women. Otherwise, unfortunately, the true picture of what caring entails gets sidelined and undervalued when it is absolutely central to what it means to be human.