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Employers need to do more to promote Shared Parental Leave and a substantial number are doing very little, a conference ahead of the second anniversary of the legislation heard.
Jonathan Swan, Head of Research at Working Families, told the conference at the University of Manchester last week that many employers seemed to be “hoping [SPL] would go away”.
He said some employers seemed to get it and many of these enhanced it, but there was a definite knowledge gap among SMEs in particular.
Other speakers at the conference outlined research showing that sharing leave is unlikely to lead to high take-up in the absence of financial enhancement and dedicated fathers’ leave.
They were not optimistic about progress on this front in the near future. Swan said: “I think we are quite a long way from standalone leave.” He thought, however, that there could be progress on increasing statutory paternity pay and extending SPL to self employed dads.
The conference heard from several experts in the field of shared parental leave and support for dads.
Adrienne Burgess from the Fatherhood Institute went over the history of parental leave in the UK, the origins of maternity leave and paternity leave in a move to support maternal health after the birth. This compared to unpaid parental leave, available to mums and dads, which was centred around care of the child.
Describing SMP as “the largest low paid leave in Europe”, she said the UK was unusual in choosing not to cap SMP in the first six weeks. That meant the government had to cover the cost of 90% of any salary rather than an average salary, as occurs in Iceland.
While the UK was the first in the EU to offer paid maternity leave very few women took this due to the long qualifying period, said Burgess. In 1974 Sweden offered paid leave to both mums and dads. At the time it was planned that dads would get some form of protected leave, but this was dropped at the last minute. Take-up by dads was low. In 1994 Sweden was the first country to offer reserved leave for dads on a use it or lose it basis.
In 2003 the UK increased maternity leave to 52 weeks and dads were offered two weeks’ paternity leave at the statutory rate, which is below the minimum wage after lobbying.
Burgess said that it was hard to get accurate data on uptake of paternity leave as many employers didn’t claim back the costs.
She called the extension of maternity leave “a killer for gender equality” as it meant women were out of the workplace for long periods and often faced discrimination while men continued to work as normal.
She said the introduction of at least some form of paternity leave had “changed the conversation” and opened the way for Shared Parental Leave. However, plans to offer reserved leave for dads were scuppered at the last moment, she said, by a coalition of women’s organisations who argued that it could mean women felt pressurised to go back to work. Evidence from other countries such as Iceland showed that having reserved leave for dads paid at a sustainable level could be good for women in the workplace, for couple relationships and for child development. The UK was lagging behind, she said.
Some employers had tried to incentivise SPL by offering to enhance it, but there was not much data on this, said Burgess. She felt employers needed to publicise it more. It had to be very visible everywhere, promoted in a positive way and managers had to be trained about it.
There were opportunities coming up to push the agenda forward, she stated. They included the government’s review of flexible working and SPL in 2018-19 and the Modern Employment Review.
Ben Kerrane, from the University of Lancaster, and Emma Banister, from the University of Manchester, organised the conference and spoke about their research on couples who had taken SPL. They interviewed 25 dads before and after they took SPL.
Many had chosen SPL due to their experiences with their own fathers. They wanted to play a more hands on role. They also wanted greater fairness in parenting and felt their career should not have priority over their partner’s. Many were not the primary breadwinner in their family. They had done the sums and worked out an arrangement with their partner that met their circumstances.
The dads had met a lot of barriers with people being surprised at their decision. Some felt they were being sidelined at work and seen as not as career-focused and more dispensable. However, the biggest barrier was the complexity of the legislation. One man felt it was deliberately ambiguous in order to dissuade people from taking it.
The research project aims to help change the conversation about SPL and will launch video case studies on 5th April to promote the legislation, give clear information about how it works in practice and make it more accessible.
The researchers would like to see employers do more on the policy through promoting role models, making it easier for people to drop in and talk to HR or managers about it given everyone’s situation was different and advertising it before they get a case rather than adopting a wait and see approach. Doing so, they said, would show that they valued dads as much as mums.
Professor Caroline Gatrell from the University of Liverpool talked about her research on dads and flexible working which showed dads who worked flexibly had better relationships with their colleagues and felt their employer was more committed to them.
She also found dads’ stress levels peaked with the first child, fell with the second – perhaps because they felt more confident and then rose again with subsequent children, maybe because their partner was more likely to drop out of the workforce or reduce their hours then, putting the onus on the dad to be the main earner.
Her research also found that doing the housework improved dads’ sense of wellbeing and their relationships.
Professor Gatrell said that despite benefits for employers of happier employees and reduced absence, most dads felt their organisation discouraged them from working flexibly.
Dads also felt some sense of resentment that flexible working was only aimed at women and that women had a better deal than them – something her research with women contradicted.
Much of working family policy and practice lagged behind people’s lived reality, for instance, the fact many parents separated and that there were complex extended families. This meant flexible working was vital for a large spectrum of people juggling caring responsibilities.
Professor Berit Brandth from the NTNU spoke about parental leave policy in Norway. Dads have been able to share leave there since 1978, but did not take it in great numbers, she said. However, in 1993 the government introduced a dedicated dads’ leave in addition to shared leave and maternity leave. Uptake by dads rose from 4 to 75% in the first five years. It has been slightly amended since and take-up is at 91.4%.
Norway’s experience shows that dads are more likely to take leave if it is not shared with the mother, but is a separate right for dads and if it is paid at more than a basic rate, said Brandth.
It has become the norm, she added, and it was now more of a stigma for men if they didn’t take it. It was also accepted at work. There were, however, drawbacks. Mums could take leave at the same time as dads and leave could be taken flexibly up until the child is three. That meant nearly half of mums were around during the leave and dads in this situation did not develop the same confidence and care competence as those who were home alone. They were not equal to women in terms of the care role. Moreover, those dads who took flexible leave, ie working part time while juggling childcare, were significantly more stressed than other dads, their work dominated and they were less able to bond with their children. Also, although shared care increased dads’ involvement in childcare and child/dad bonds, it did not close the gender pay gap, decrease gender segregation in the workplace or strengthen women’s careers.
The conference also heard from a couple who had taken SPL – Adam Shoesmith and Sarada Chunduri-Shoesmith. Both were on similar earnings and were the first people in their organisations to take SPL – from summer 2015 to summer 2016. Both were well supported by their HR teams. They said they had always seen parental leave as a joint issue and their relationship was about give and take. Adam, who works in Whitehall, was therefore happy to take a step back so Sarada could move forwards in her career as a hospital inspector. Sarada, who took the first three months off, said she felt she would not have got the chances she has had subsequently for career advancement if not for SPL. “I am so grateful it exists,” she said.