Why are so few fathers taking shared parental leave?

New research shows action is needed for gender equality in the office and at home


It is a year since the law on parental leave changed. From April 2015 fathers have been able to split leave more equally between parents, in a move that is meant to promote greater gender equality. But 12 months after this policy change, research by My Family Care shows less than 1 percent of male employees are taking up shared leave.

Parents in the UK are allowed up to 52 weeks parental leave, of which 39 weeks are paid leave. From April 2015, parents have been able to share 50 weeks of the leave between them and 37 weeks of the paid leave. Only the first two weeks after a child’s birth are reserved for the mother.

Moreover, shared parental leave does not have to be taken in one go. A father or mother can book up to three blocks of leave, making it easier to balance work and caring responsibilities.

My Family Care surveyed 1,000 parents and 200 businesses and found that less than 1 percent of male employees had taken up shared parental leave. Four out of ten employers reported that not a single male employee had taken up shared parental leave in their business.

Today’s research indicated that a major reason for the low take up of shared parental leave was that families could not afford to split the leave. For the first six weeks of parental leave, a parent receives 90 percent of their salary. But for the remaining 33 weeks, parental leave is paid at £139.58 per week or 90 per cent of the salary, whichever is lowest. This is about half the minimum wage.

In 70 per cent of families with children, men are still the main breadwinners, so the sacrifice of salary associated with shared parental leave is larger. It simply does not make sense for better-paid male partners to take shared parental leave.

But there are other reasons why the uptake of shared parental leave is low. Mothers may not fully trust their partners to look after small babies. Men may feel that their careers will suffer and they will be seen as less committed if they take shared parental leave.

The same applies to flexible work practices. A survey carried out in 2013 showed that nearly a third of employees have heard derogatory remarks made about flexible work in their workplaces.

Since 2002 parents have also had the right to ask for flexible working, initially if they had a child under six or a disabled child. The Work and Families Act 2006 extended this to all parents with children under 18 and in 2014 this right was given to all employees to reduce any stigma associated with family friendly working.

Again, it is still mothers who are more likely to request flexible work, such as part-time employment, flexible hours or term-time working.

Part-time work is the most popular form of flexible work, but in many organisations part-time jobs are often of a lower status than full-time employment and are less likely to lead to promotion. This may impact negatively on women’s career prospects, leading to the ‘motherhood penalty’.

Those who argued for shared parental leave and flexible work asserted that these policies changes were needed to break down gendered assumptions about caring responsibilities.

There is still a cultural expectation in some sectors of the economy that women have the primary responsibility for childcare. They are seen as less committed as they are more likely take extended periods away from work to bring up children. Mothers are seen as less committed.

Until these views change, men will not take up shared parental leave and the substantial gender pay gap will persist.

Of course, shared parental leave is a welcome policy change. It is still early days, and uptake will undoubtedly increase. But more action is needed, if we want to end inequalities such as women in their 50s earning nearly a third (27 percent) less than men.

All sectors of society – business, government, individuals – need to make a positive case for shared parental leave and flexible work. We need to show the economic benefits on issues such as employee retention, but also show the positive impacts on family relationships and child development.

‘Use-it-or-lose-it’ paternity leave, solely reserved for men, might help break down stigma associated with childcare. Increasing the level at which parental leave is paid may also encourage more fathers to take up parental leave. Where flexible working is promoted from the highest level in the organisation – the chief executive – there is less stigma attached to it.

Businesses need to make more of an effort to reach out to men and encourage them to take parental leave or to work flexibility. And mothers need to trust their male partners to look after their children.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and writes in a personal capacity. Follow her on Twitter @JillyRutter

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