05 December 2017
There are still hefty barriers to equality in the UK that just aren’t shifting. Offering Shared Parental Leave had the potential to be a real lever for change, rolling away the assumption that women will sacrifice a career for extended maternity leave. But nothing’s going to happen without more incentives for dads and understanding among employers, says Ben Kerrane.
The Nordic countries are often held up as a utopia of equality between working men and women, a model of open minds, healthy parenting and family life ever since the principle of Shared Parental Leave (SPL) was introduced in the 1970s.
The question then arises: why can’t the UK be more like that? Nordic employers, and men in general, just appear to be more progressive and warm-hearted, to have shaken off the dust of stereotypes.
But there are harder and more specific reasons why the take-up in countries like Sweden and Norway has been huge (with around nine in ten fathers opting to take shared leave); and why, here in the UK, the response has been at low levels and with seemingly little impact on the bigger issue of career equality.
In general, Nordic fathers are incentivised to take on the responsibilities of shared leave. In Sweden, for example, both parents are entitled to take up to 480 days of leave while still receiving 80% of their full salary. In many cases employers will offer full pay for long periods. Swedish fathers can also choose how they take that leave, it might be by the month, but it could also be by the hour when they most need it. Importantly time is allotted specifically for the father to take, rather than being a proportion of time taken from the overall pot.
There has also been a significant difference in how the legislation has been promoted. From the 1970s onwards, Nordic countries have become used to advertising campaigns on TV, on buses, trains - messages about the importance of shared parental roles have been everywhere - and become seen as a feature of their society, a quality and strength. Most importantly of all, it’s seen as normal.
Why babycare has stayed with mums
First introduced in 2015, the UK legislation on shared leave gives parents the right to split up to 52 weeks of leave between them (including up to 39 weeks of statutory shared parental pay).
Research this year by the charity Working Families showed that a quarter of fathers didn’t even know the option existed. Around half of 300 fathers surveyed said they wouldn’t take up their rights under the legislation, with a third of these saying it was because they couldn’t afford to. The level of financial remuneration is a problem for men who continue to be seen as the principal earner who can’t afford to compromise on earnings. While large firms can sometimes afford to offer deals like that provided by Accenture, six months on full pay, many others can’t.
Financial incentives aren’t the only issue. For mothers there is the concern over having to give up their time with a new baby. The father’s time is essentially taken out of their maternity leave, exchanged, not provided as an extra. In my work talking to mothers they see this as “my time”, precious weeks and months with a baby that can’t be replaced.
There is still a stigma attached to men taking a leading childcare role. Men regularly report having to justify themselves to friends and family; how they can be stopped in the street to explain why they’re with the baby and not at work. For all the social changes over the past 30 years, the perception that men need to be the breadwinner continues to be powerful, as well as the myth that men either don’t have the right qualities to care for children or don’t want the job. Men continue to believe that they are judged primarily on their level of earnings, and taking shared leave is a threat to those earnings.
Another factor has been government caution around the attitudes and effects on employers. The launch of the policy was muted, accompanied by a predicted take-up of just 2-8% among new fathers.
The business case
Employers are missing out on a win-win from Shared Parental Leave (SPL). In a context of uncertainty for employees, where pay increases are small and routes for progress less reliable, organisations need to make the most of opportunities for engagement, for encouraging feelings of mutual loyalty and commitment.
The pioneers of SPL in the UK have reported on a range of benefits. Fathers have individually found the experience life-changing. It’s encouraged them to look at changing their role for the long-term within their family, to providing more support for their partner and finding more of a balance in their lives. They better understand the pressures on the mother, and have seen how it’s helped their career. Family relationships are better all round. There’s more stability and happiness in the home. Research has shown that it’s what happens in the first year of a child’s life that sets the whole tone for what type of father someone will be.
For the employer, the fathers who have been given whole-hearted support feel happier at work, more committed and trusting of the organisation for the future. SPL should be an essential factor in recruitment, retention and employer branding.
Admittedly, employers are in the hands of the legislation. A policy review is scheduled for next year, when campaigners are expected to push for an evolution of the legislation to increase take-up. What’s needed is a much greater push to publicise the offering to parents and society as a whole, to make shared baby care the norm; to look at what’s going to make a difference in terms of financial incentives; and to ensure that there’s ring-fenced time just for fathers.