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How do we get fathers to take parental leave? Do they need role models? Do we need to create culture change in companies? Would advertising campaigns persuade them to take up their responsibilities? (The Government tried a £1.5m campaign earlier this year to shift the guys.)
These questions come in the face of the spectacularly low levels of use of parental leave by fathers in UK – less than 1% of all new fathers. Compare that with 91% in Iceland, 86% in Quebec or 63% in Portugal. What is it with British men?
These questions are prejudiced. Behind them lies the idea that the low take-up of leave is a problem with men and that they are in need of fixing. But fathers are not the problem. The problem is what they are being offered.
Aviva has proved this. At Aviva 95% of all new fathers take parental leave. Two thirds of these took 6 months or more of leave. What is the secret?
It is very simple: Aviva is generous and it gives mothers and fathers exactly the same thing. At a time of such intense interest in gender equality, one would be forgiven for assuming that Government leave entitlements are equal too. In reality they are massively unequal.
For a start, Government gives all the leave to mothers and then invites her to share some of it with the father. We know from decades of experience in other countries that any system built on this principle is guaranteed to fail. But it’s worse: if mum were to share some of her six weeks at 90% pay, dad would only get £141 per week for those weeks.
The UK state pays 26 times more to a mother on the average wage (£27,000) in the first year after a birth than to the father. The father gets £282 for two weeks off, while the mother gets £7,450 (6 weeks at 90% pay, 33 weeks at £141).
And this miserable arrangement is only accessible to 37% of couples anyway, of whom only 2% take it.
Some companies make things even more unequal by topping up mothers’ leave payments but not fathers’. A 2017 survey of 341 companies found 95% enhanced maternity pay, often to a significant extent, but only 4.4% enhanced paternity pay for even part of the two weeks.
It costs Aviva to do this, but when the full cost-benefit analysis is done, the chances are the savings to Aviva on reduced recruitment costs because of committed employees will be more than the cost of the parental leave system.
Aviva’s policy is not driven by a sudden enthusiasm for fatherhood – though it recognises that millennial fathers are less and less likely to put up with employers who are stuck in the last century. The purpose of the policy is to tackle problems of career progression faced mainly by women.
Research published earlier this year in Denmark showed that parenting influences women’s earnings, not men’s. A 30% gender pay gap opens up immediately between women who are mothers and women who are not, after which things improve slightly, but it stays at roughly 20% of the next 10 years.
This is what Aviva is addressing. The parental leave scheme is seen as a worthwhile investment in mothers. The irony is that the scheme involves the company paying more to fathers than to mothers, in order to take the same amount of leave, because Government is paying more to mothers than to fathers.
How parents organise care in the first year is crucial. The first year tends to create habits. Differentials in competence and confidence in the first year tend to lead to permanent unequal roles. (I use “tend to” because the research records changes in averages, and this does not describe each individual situation.)
These unequal roles not only directly undermine gender equality, they also undermine the health and welfare of both mother and baby.
There are libraries of research showing that, when fathers contribute more care, everything gets better – the mother’s health, the baby’s health, the baby’s future cognitive and social/emotional development, the parental relationship. This even applies to breastfeeding: when fathers care for babies more, breastfeeding goes up. It turns out that fathers normally want the good health of their babies just as much as mothers do and, if they are more involved, they contribute more to the joint effort.
Aviva’s success has revealed the Government’s policy of shared leave to be, just like the Wizard of Oz, a humbug. It’s time to give Aviva a medal for courage and to put the Government’s policy in a balloon and let go of the rope.