I went to an event on Shared Parental Leave the other day. It came a day after a group of cross-party MPs had signed a letter to the minister for women and equalities calling for dedicated dad’s leave. There is strong evidence from Scandinavia that dads are much more likely to take leave in the first year after a baby is born if it is offered on a use it or lose it basis. The UK is miles behind.
SPL, which puts all the onus on the mother “sharing” her leave, has had very low take-up so far – only around 5% of new dads have taken it, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. People at the event pointed to growing evidence of problems: it’s very complicated, most employers don’t enhance it so it is basically less than the minimum wage, employers don’t promote it so information is hard to find, social attitudes still tend to the male breadwinner/woman main caregiver model despite many dads wanting to take a more hands on role in bringing up their children and women recognising that taking a long time out of the workplace and not sharing care is often damaging to their careers.
So is the problem one of promotion or is the legislation so fundamentally flawed that it is unlikely to ever really take off? Well, maybe a bit of both. Apart from hopes it will be extended to the self employed in exchange for a rise in NICs, the speakers were fairly gloomy about the prospects for any ‘use it or lose it’ model of leave for dads in the near future because, basically, the government will be too tied up with Brexit. It is hard not to agree. If you look at recent responses from the Government on the Women & Equalities Committee reports – on the gender pay gap and maternity discrimination – there is a distinct whiff of kicking the issues into the long grass and leaving them to employers, who will also be tied up with Brexit.
The Committee and its supporters are fairly determined and it is clear there is a demand for change, particularly from younger dads, but one gets the feeling that the next few years are going to be all about defence rather than moving forwards on this and any issues related to women and the workplace. Of course, there are some great employers out there who can see the business benefits of linking paternity leave and gender equality, but will others, particularly the medium-sized businesses, who will be struggling with all the general uncertainty, be inclined or able to look to the longer term without supporting legislation?
What will the impact be then of the clash of expectations from many younger parents with a resistance to change? This generational divide is perhaps symptomatic of our times. In the meantime, we have Shared Parental Leave, with all its inadequacies. We’ll have to do what we can with it.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.