The first anniversary of the introduction of shared parental leave passed earlier this year with, it’s fair to say, more of a whimper than a full-blown scream. The scheme, which essentially allows both parents to share the traditional year’s maternity (or adoption) leave between themselves, had been described as heralding a “quiet revolution” in how mothers and fathers share work and care.
So far, however, take-up has been poor and, whilst it is early days, any substantial impact of the new scheme on attitudes in the workplace has yet to be seen.
From a personal perspective, the introduction of shared parental leave has had a lot more significance – I started a six-month stint myself in March this year.
In addition to my new-found skills in nursery rhymes, nappy changing and dealing with night-time awakenings, as an employment lawyer, my leave has given me a new perspective from which to consider why take-up has been low and how things might change to increase the number of fathers taking leave.
It was, after all, hoped that the introduction of shared parental leave would help combat discrimination, in particular against working mothers, in a number of different ways.
First, both men and women would potentially have periods of absence from the workplace, so there should be no favouritism towards men by unscrupulous employers during recruitment.
Second, men would be regarded as having more equal responsibility for childcare throughout their careers, hopefully removing some of the negative perceptions about women with children in the workplace (the “motherhood penalty”).
Third, it also means that men experience the reality of taking leave and being the primary care-giver, at least for a certain period, so are better able to empathise with the challenges faced by working mothers.
Obviously, though, these impacts will only be felt if more fathers participate in the scheme.
Research that was published shortly after my own leave began revealed that only 1% of men were taking shared parental leave. Whilst those figures were not quite as gloomy as first appeared (the figure in the research was 1% of all men, not just eligible fathers), they are clearly not a cause for celebration.
My own experience backs this up. During my time off, I have met very few other fathers on shared parental leave.
So, how can the position be improved?
The starting point is of course to ask why take-up is currently so low. Many fathers would presumably relish the chance to take leave to care for their children. It is a wonderful opportunity to be able to spend so much time with your child, watching them grow and change every day.
The research found that some of the main reasons that men have chosen not to take up the leave are financial affordability, lack of awareness and an unwillingness from women to share their maternity leave.
In terms of the financial situation, under the statutory scheme, those on shared parental leave generally only receive the residual statutory maternity (or adoption) pay that the mother (or primary adopter) would have received if her leave had continued. Some employers offer enhanced shared parental pay, but many do not.
If the government wanted to seriously encourage take-up, one option would be to amend the statutory scheme so that the person taking shared parental leave is paid the same as if they were starting maternity (or adoption) leave or, at the very least, receives some level of pay which more realistically covers the loss of salary. We might be waiting some time for a government that looks to make such a change.
In terms of improving awareness and changing cultural attitudes, the scheme is of course relatively new. Hopefully the more people who take shared parental leave, the more people will become aware of it. This is likely to take some time.
In order to really bring about cultural change, again, it may be necessary for further alterations to the rules to be introduced.
As is so often the case, Scandinavia is ahead of the game here. In Sweden, for example, they have a “daddy quota” whereby 90 days out of a total of 480 days of paid leave have to be taken by the father, otherwise the couple as a whole loses those 90 days.
Having such a lengthy period of parental leave, along with the “daddy quota” presumably also addresses the concerns some UK mothers are said to have of not wanting to give up any of their one year’s maternity leave.
In any case, the percentage of men taking parental leave in Sweden is much higher and I imagine there is a snowball effect here. More men taking shared parental leave presumably results in a greater culture of men being responsible for child care which presumably further increases the number of men taking leave.
Having said that, from what I have seen, there is already some cause for optimism in this country in terms of cultural change. Whilst I might not have met many others on shared parental leave, my experience is that men are very much involved in childcare, not just in the evenings or at the weekend but also during what would otherwise be "normal working hours".
In all the baby-related activities I have taken part in, it has been very unusual not to see any other fathers. Be it rhyme time, stay and play or swimming classes, I have very rarely been the only dad in attendance. From the men I have spoken to, it seems that more and more fathers are working part time, from home or flexibly in some other way to be able to take part in these activities.
This is of course anecdotal evidence only but it seems that there has already been something of a cultural shift. A greater take-up of shared parental leave should follow from that, and from there, potentially a reduction in workplace discrimination.
I can only hope that this is right because the other thing that taking shared parental leave has confirmed to me is that having to bring a claim during leave would be extremely undesirable. Sadly, because of short employment tribunal time limits, it is something that many mothers have to do.
Aside from how difficult it would be to juggle childcare responsibilities with suing your employer, it is also a time you will never get back. Nobody would choose to remember their leave as the time they brought their employment tribunal claim.
Let’s hope, then, that as time moves on, taking shared parental leave becomes much more common and that there is greater cause for celebration on future anniversaries of the introduction of the scheme.
Now, back to The Wheels on the Bus.