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It’s a year since Shared Parental Leave legislation came into force so is it making a difference? Research shows that uptake is low, but what about the deeper issues it raises around male and female parenting roles? A project conducted by researchers at Lancaster University Management School and Manchester Business School, Making room for dads, is throwing up some interesting findings.
Dr Ben Kerrane, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Lancaster University Management School, co-leads the project with Dr Emma Banister, MBS. It is an ongoing qualitative study of around 24 dads. They were interviewed shortly after they had found out they were going to be a dad and were considering SPL and then once they had done it. Kerrane, whose other research job centres around marketing and how decisions about what is bought and consumed are made in families, says it was hard to find dads to take part at first as they were just looking locally. He and Banister have broadened the study out across the country and in the last three months it has got more momentum.
He says one of the big things that immediately struck him was the legislation’s lack of clarity. Dads struggled with issues such as whether they and their partner could take it together, what KIT days were, when they could take it and so forth. “That came through in all the interviews we conducted. The wording is very complex and not accessible and could put people off,” he says.
He added that extending the leave to grandparents could further complicate things and put dads off taking leave, which is what the legislation was supposed to be about. “The thinking is not joined up. It could push out fathers,” he says.
There was also concern that the early takers of SPL were treated a bit like guinea pigs by their employers. “Many companies are maybe paying lip service to it and didn’t seem to think anyone would take it,” says Kerrane. Where senior leaders took it and there was enhanced SPL pay, there was more likelihood of take-up, he added. Money was a key reason for taking it up and families were quite logistical in working out if the finances worked out when considering SPL. Men were also very worried about the impact of taking SPL on their career progression and about what their job would be like when they returned and whether they would be seen as less committed. Kerrane said there was a definite need for support from employers for transition back to work after several months on leave.
Many of the men had reflected about the role of their own fathers in their upbringing. For many, their fathers had been absent figures, either because of long work hours or the breakdown of their parents’ relationship, and they wanted to move away from that model. However, there were a lot of challenges in moving towards a more equal model.
Part of this is to do with the way SPL is constructed. The legislation is very much worded as something a mother gives up, as her entitlement. “The onus is still very much on women relinquishing some of their leave,” says Kerrane. “It is a managed equality and it is not just women who are often reluctant to give it up. Many men see the leave as the mother’s entitlement too.” They want change, but they recognise that women have had to bear the whole pregnancy, from which many dads feel detached, and that they needed some time to recover. The ante-natal and birth process is still a bit hit and miss when it comes to involving dads and in some cases makes men feel like the mother is the “oracle of parenting” which leads dads to struggle with what their role is, says Kerrane. Stereotypes about mums as supermums and natural carers versus dads as bumbling idiots didn’t help.
Kerrane said he was interested in how parents were negotiating how SPL would be taken, and divided between them. Many women were proactive in finding out information about SPL, and the new dads wanted to support their partners’ careers. However, SPL decisions were often made for pragmatic and practical reasons, often centred on which partner earned more money or who needed greater focus at work for career progression. What is more, a lot of the women were still around, working from home or remotely, when their partners were taking SPL (often as a result of the decision to breastfeed their child). In terms of the support networks the dads used, some dads had been to baby groups, but several say they were put off going because they perceived they stuck out and were an oddity.
In summary, whilst the men recruited were trailblazers in opting in to active fatherhood, with the men wanting to spend early quality time with their newborn children, barriers existed to such full inclusion.
The project has funding until summer 2017, but Kerrane and Banister are bidding for more money to generate practical information sources offering advice to parents considering taking SPL (including case studies detailing stories of those who have successfully engaged with SPL policy). They also hope to bid for funding to further the research and hear more from women. “The implications are huge – it covers gender equality, identity, work life balance, sociology, healthcare and other issues,” says Kerrane.
For more information about the study, or if you are taking SPL and wish to take part, see: