Tackling the barriers to shared parenting

Researchers have this week published what is claimed to be the most comprehensive study of the reasons for low take-up of Shared Parental Leave.



What can be done to increase uptake of Shared Parental Leave [SPL]? Research published this week,  described as the most comprehensive yet , looks at what is preventing greater take-up of the leave, which came in in April 2015 and which many have linked to efforts to reduce the gender pay gap by reducing the so-called double burden on working mums.

The study, by Dr Sarah Forbes and Dr Holly Birkett from the University of Birmingham, suggests a range of ways employers, policymakers and individuals can increase shared parenting in the first year of a child’s life.

The researchers, who are co-leads of the university’s Equal Parenting project, shows that one of the reasons for low take-up is lack of awareness of the policy, which allows parents to share their leave in the year after the birth of their child.

Dr Forbes says this can be addressed by raising the profile through case studies, educating line managers about SPL, having “relevant” workplace champions, communicating the benefits – such as reducing the gender pay gap by involving more dads in childcare from the outset – and generally making it more visible in internal communications. She praised certain employers, such as Aviva, for being very proactive in coming up with progressive policies on equal leave, going further than SPL, and promoting them.

Dr Forbes speaks of one dad who wanted to be there for his partner and share the care, but did not know about it and how he regretted the moments he missed. “He felt he could not help his wife,” she says.

Dr Holly Birkett added: “Parents don’t realise that they can use SPL in ways which are not available through traditional maternity, paternity and adoption policies.  Interviewees in our sample used SPL in a variety of ways, such as, to extend paternity leave, support their partner in the first few months, go travelling round Europe for six months as a family, to move through periods working and at home dependent on the needs of their family and career through the use of blocks of leave and to facilitate mothers returning to work towards the end of the first year without the baby having to go to nursery at under one year old”.

Finance and social expectations

Another big barrier to uptake is financial, adds Dr Forbes. The study finds that professional couples are most likely to take SPL, particularly where the mother earns more or the father’s company enhances Shared Parental Pay. “It makes a big difference if the employer enhances pay. It is clear dads have concerns about the financial implications and are often on higher pay than mums so the family cannot get by on the statutory rate,” she says. Another concern is that taking leave will have a long-term impact on their careers and earning ability.

Other hurdles highlighted include the perceived complexity of the legislation, workplace culture generally, particularly with regard to working dads, and societal expectations that the mother should be the primary carer. Critics have said that a key problem with the legislation is the way it is framed which still puts the onus on the mother as primary carer to share her leave. They argue that what is needed instead is a standalone right to extended leave for dads which operates on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis.

In the absence of that kind of change taking place in the near future, however, those who want to push the case for shared parenting have to tackle the societal barriers that are preventing uptake of SPL.

Dr Forbes speaks of the ‘horrible stories’ she has heard of mums feeling guilty going back to work early from maternity leave based on societal expectations for the mother to stay at home.  Many mums, she says, are interested in SPL, but feel their partner will not want to take it, even though research shows many want to take it in the future. Forbes says parents need to talk honestly to each other and not make assumptions.

She adds that the research shows mental health is a big issue for mums and dads. She says mums can feel exhausted and some can even become isolated and depressed when on maternity leave. Sharing leave means dads can support them and ensure they get some rest. Dads become more confident about looking after children, particularly if they have time as the sole carer, she adds. The family relationship is improved generally and research shows child development is boosted by dads’ closer involvement in childcare.

Dr Forbes says it should not be assumed that low uptake will persist. The research suggests that millennials are “very, very interested” in sharing care and she says she anticipates more pressure being put on employers to publish their parental leave policies so candidates don’t feel uncomfortable having to bring it up in an interview scenario. Publishing policies could become a key recruitment tool, she states.

The research is published in the academic journal Policy Studies.

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