Only 1 per cent of new parents used shared parental leave in 2018, according to research which shows that just 9,200 new parents took up shared leave in 2018 out of more than 900,000 who were eligible. A combination of lack of awareness, societal/cultural attitudes and lack of financial support has meant that the scheme has been largely ineffective in supporting families to move with the times.
Attitudes towards parenting are changing, with fathers wanting more involvement and mothers wanting to maintain their careers after having children. More and more couples now are eager to share their leave during baby’s first year, enabling a more equal approach to parenting, but the government’s current scheme is falling short and more needs to be done.
Shared parental leave was introduced in April 2015 to allow parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave (37 of which are paid) after they have a baby. Once a mother has had her compulsory 2 weeks of maternity leave following childbirth (4 weeks in certain roles/industries) parents can then share the rest of the leave, enabling men to be more involved with parenting.
In a survey of fathers who said they wouldn’t use the scheme, more than a third said it was because they couldn’t afford to. Shared parental leave is paid at a statutory rate of £151.20 per week, in line with the lower rate of statutory maternity pay. However, unlike maternity pay which is paid at a higher rate of 90% of a woman’s earnings for the first 6 weeks, fathers are not entitled to any enhanced pay, making it an unaffordable option for lots of families. While employers can choose to enhance parental leave for new fathers, most do not. Nationally, the Working Families charity found that only 32 per cent of its surveyed organisations were enhancing Shared Parental Leave Pay. Considering almost eight out of 10 British companies pay men more than women (the UKs current gender pay gap stands at 8.9%) this, to some extent, explains why take-up of Shared Parental Leave is extremely low.
More needs to be done to ensure new dads can take a reasonable amount of time to bond with their new baby and be equal parents if we hope to see a real change in gender inequality. Gender gaps in employment and wages still exist, appearing most often around childbirth. Referred to as the ‘child penalty’ (Bertrand et al. 2010, Kleven et al. 2019), women often feel penalised for choosing to have a family due to the impact it often has on their career. In October 2019, the University of Bristol found some damning statistics in relation to the gender gap, finding that only 27.8% of women from more than 3,500 new parents were still in full-time work or self-employed three years after childbirth, compared to 90% of new fathers.
This contrast in employment status post-partum is due to a vast number of reasons, many of which are directly connected to where childcare duties fall. And while who takes on the lions share of childcare is considered a personal choice; the reality is that current parental leave policies make women the main carers by default.
There really are no negatives to fathers having the opportunity to spend more time with their children during the first year. Some studies have suggested that fathers who are ‘hands-on’ from the start suffer from less stress due to being able to understand their babies needs better. There is also ample evidence that children benefit hugely in terms of their physical and mental development by having their dad involved as much as possible. As well as this, shared parental leave can help make reintegration back into work for mothers easier by shortening maternity leave and reducing the amount of time spent ‘out of the loop’, as well as of course helping to close the gender gap by providing a means to reduce the impact of maternity leave on women’s’ careers.
As well as benefits to families and individuals, shared parental leave and increased flexibility for both mothers and fathers benefits employers too, with research showing that employees with a better work-life balance and more flexibility are happier, more engaged and more productive at work.
Until we see an improvement in the way employers value parents, particularly new dads, and better shared parental leave options to make it affordable and accessible for all, then we can’t hope to see the gender gap close by an awful lot. If more fathers can share the load when it comes to parental leave, attitudes towards childcare responsibilities will begin to change with the times.
Natasha is part of the Marketing Team at Steps To Work. She is responsible for the marketing side of our BBO projects.