The role of parental leave in driving gender equality

More equal parental leave policies are a vital way that employers can create greater gender equality at home and at work, a recent webinar heard.

man and woman's feet standing next to empty baby shoes


How can employers promote more equality at home and at work and what are the benefits of doing so for them?

Role of parental leave

A recent webinar hosted by flexible childcare organisation Bubble looked at the role of shared or more equal parental leave.

Susha Chandrasekhar, a government lawyer and chair of the Association of Women Solicitors, who worked on Shared Parental Leave said the legislation was motivated by a desire to increase the involvement of dads in childcare, the importance of positive role modelling for children and by a desire for greater equality.

She spoke of how every new piece of employment legislation in the UK has to be tested against business needs, given employment law comes under the aegis of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Her role was to help draft the law and check whether it was compatible with European law and how it might work legally.

She said the policy began with a blank piece of paper and lots of ideas, for instance, there was a proposal to grant six months of use it or lose it leave. The final options, which covered all parents, including surrogate and adoptive parents, were put out to consultation.

There was, says Chandrasekhar, a lot of pushback from employers and the policy that resulted was nothing like the original proposition. For instance, she said, the original specified a certain level of pay for a longer period. “There was a lot of horse trading,” she stated.

Then the legislation had to go through Parliament. The process, including implementation and the issuing of guidance, took two years. Chandrasekhar said the law was a baby step forward, but some employers had taken it and run with it and that having legislation in place had given employers an obligation to offer it. However, she said it had fallen down the priority list during Covid. She is, nevertheless, optimistic that the direction of travel is towards change.

David Blackburn, Chief People Officer of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme whose organisation has a gender pay gap at the top of the business which is in favour of women, said culture is crucial to promoting greater gender equality. That means having a vision for what you want your culture to be. Culture has shot up the priority list for CEOs, he said, and it has now become the differentiator for many employers in the battle for talent, even though HR directors have been speaking about it for years. 

He said employers need to seek out those things which are enablers of a better culture, such as a sense of social purpose, and what are the blockers. FSCS decided they wanted to become an employer of choice and to differentiate themselves in the financial services sector. They could not compete with investment banks in terms of earnings, but they could make every job flexible [every job is a flex from the first day now]. Another area was parental leave for all parents. The organisation turned questions about flexible working on their head, prompted by their then CEO asking why every job could not be flexible. Next came the question of why mums and dads couldn’t be treated equally. Their equal parental leave policy has been promoted widely and 100% of dads have taken advantage of it, even though parental leave take-up is poor nationally. The return on investment is evident in positive feedback and engagement and retention figures, said Blackburn.

Communication is critical

Chandrasekhar said her husband is Swedish and taking extended parental leave is common in Scandinavia. She added that it is important to communicate about these rights so they become normalised.  She acknowledged that it can be hard to know when is the right moment to target dads with information about their rights, but said ante-natal appointments can be a good moment for line managers to bring up the topic and remind them. It is also important, she said, to review take-up and understand what might discourage people from going on leave. Buddying systems with other new parents can also help promote a paradigm cultural shift as can role modelling. In Finland, the Prime Minister’s partner has taken leave.

Blackburn agreed that it is vital to proactively get information to people at crucial moments when they most need it. He added that HR professionals sometimes overcomplicate things by creating policies for everything and forget that the most important thing is the vision and the fundamental principle you are trying to get across about your culture. “It is important to think about how we can make it easier for people to give their best every day,” he said.

FSCS lives by the motto of engage, listen, act. That means engaging with people, listening to their feedback and using it to shape policy. “You do not always have to agree on what they propose, but you should always have a dialogue so you can keep evolving,” said Blackburn, adding that culture offers employers a competitive advantage. A recent survey by Adecco found that candidates rate culture and flexibility as the most important factors when they seek a new job – that is, the lived experience in an organisation – while employers often wrongly think it is about brand.

Blackburn said it is important that employers engage, listen and act, but added that many only do one or two of those.  He added that they should also use data to understand their organisation better, for instance, whether people are not returning from parental leave, and use that to inform policy. He said that often business leaders say that a policy is too expensive, but they don’t understand all the hidden costs of not bringing it in, such as recruitment costs.

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