Last month the Children and Families Bill had a second reading in the House of Commons. It recognised the vital role that both parents play in their children’s upbringing, from birth throughout their childhood.
Under the new Bill, maternity leave available from two weeks to 12 months following birth, can be used by the father instead of the mother; shared between them in blocks or taken together. This may be particularly attractive where the mother is the main or equal breadwinner in the family.
Since April 2012 fathers have been able to share maternity leave from five months after the birth but there has been a noticeably low take-up of this right. Will allowing fathers to share the leave earlier make any real difference?
It is likely to take many years before extended paternity leave becomes the norm. Deep- rooted stereotypes about traditional gender roles will not change overnight and fathers may be concerned about being penalised financially in terms of pay and career progression for taking advantage of family-friendly employment rights.
They will have seen the effects of parenthood on the careers of some of their female colleagues. But if more fathers take the opportunities that are already in place and which will be extended by the new Bill, the issues frequently faced by working mothers may well become parental, rather than maternal only issues, in the future.
It is only when fathers feel able to take advantage of these increased rights that we will have true equality in the workplace. We will only have a level playing field at interview stage when employers view men and women in the same way and genuinely believe that there is an equal chance of men taking extended periods of parental leave to care for their children, as there is of women taking additional maternity leave.
Many fathers want to be more hands-on and spend more time with their children. In families where both parents are professionals and earn a similar level of income, or where the female is the main breadwinner (and the number of such families is growing rapidly), it is much easier to maintain a successful relationship when both parents share the juggling act, rather than just the mother doing so alone.
With increasing numbers of women in the workplace, many fathers already share the parenting - for instance, doing school drop-offs, attending parents' evenings, and juggling jobs with child sickness.
In order for fathers, whether cohabiting, married, separated or divorced, to be able to play an active role in their child's daily lives, this is likely to require an approach to their employer for flexible working. Employers must be careful not to discriminate against fathers when considering flexible working requests based on traditional gender stereotypes, particularly as the Government wants to encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy.
The Bill should help to alter society's perception of gender stereotypes and in doing so reduce discrimination for both sexes in the workplace and society.
Updating employment law to reflect societal change should enable parents to juggle work, children and maintain a work/life balance more effectively. However, corporate culture plays a huge part in the practical implementation of statutory employment rights. Employers need to ensure that their culture accords with their family-friendly policies, so that it does not merely pay lip service to them and that parent role models are able to "walk the walk" as well as "talk the talk." Working parents have more choices available to them than their parents' generation had and that is positive for employers, parents, and their relationship with each other and their children.
This blog first appeared as an article in HR Magazine on Tuesday 5th March 2013.