Are dads underestimating their peers’ views on paternity leave?

New research suggests that dads may be underestimating the acceptance of longer paternity leave by their peers.

Young dad sitting on floor working with laptop while wife playing with son on background


Men may be underestimating their peers’ acceptance of longer parental leave and flexible working, according to a study by the Government’s behavioural insights team.

The team did research with Santander, which has an enhanced Shared Parental Leave [SPL] policy offering 16 weeks’ of paid leave but which, despite claims that the lack of uptake of SPL is due to financial reasons, has seen less than half of eligible dads take more than four weeks off.

In an experiment, they looked at whether ‘pluralistic ignorance’ was a factor – that is, where the majority hold a particular opinion but think that most of their colleagues think differently, something which can occur when social norms are evolving rapidly.

Male employees at Santander were asked their personal views on how much parental leave and flexible working they think men should be encouraged to take and how much they think their colleagues would think should be encouraged.
Shoshana Davidson from the unit told an event organised by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London that the results showed that on average men would encourage men to take eight weeks off, but thought their peers would say six weeks. Meanwhile, 99% supported men working flexibly, while just 65% said they thought their fellow employees would concur.

The researchers then did another survey informing half the respondents about the feedback from the previous survey, ie that more colleagues than they thought supported flexible working and longer parental leave for men. They noted a 62% increase in men who said they would take between five and eight weeks in parental leave.

However, an unintentional impact was that there was a fall in the number who said they planned to take longer periods off because they assumed it was not the norm.

So the researchers did another trial where they rephrased the feedback to show that there was also some support for longer periods of parental leave. This boosted the numbers who said they would take up to 16 weeks off. There was also a significant increase in the numbers who said they would ask for flexible working.

Davidson said the research shows the importance of sharing feedback and communicating norms as well as policy entitlements.

Human infrastructure

The meeting also heard from former Labour leader Ed Miliband who called for a use it or lose it approach to paternity leave, saying SPL gives a difficult message because it is about mothers giving something away rather than fathers having an entitlement to leave. He said the government had a duty to reflect society’s assumptions that fathers have an important role to play in childcare and he added that more money for paternity leave was an investment in “human infrastructure” which could help close the gender pay gap and address issues in the workplace that are holding the economy back. Miliband added that many people are not eligible for SPL, particularly those in insecure jobs.

He also highlighted the potential dangers of hybrid working: that it might mean more parents on leave end up doing some work because the boundaries between work and home have become more blurred. But Drew Gibson, Senior Manager – Inclusion, Belonging & Wellbeing at Santander UK, said the pandemic had enabled more flexible ways of working and had given dads more time at home with their families which was a powerful experience that should be capitalised on. Gibson also backed a use it or lose it paternity leave, saying SPL sent the wrong message and played on maternal guilt because of the focus on women having to give up their leave.

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