Sharing the caring – tackling the cultural and financial barriers to Shared Parental Leave

Baby hand in father's palmBy Donna Gardiner

New Shared Parental Leave legislation came into force in England, Scotland and Wales on the 1st December 2014.

The legislation provides much greater flexibility in regards to how parents care for their child over the first year of his or her life. Specifically, a new mother can opt to curtail her maternity leave (subject to a minimum of two weeks), and have the child’s father or her partner take any of the remaining weeks as Shared Parental Leave.

Anticipated uptake and impact

The aim of the legislation is to encourage more men to share childcare, drive greater gender equality in the workplace, and eliminate discrimination around maternity leave. The government estimates that around 285,000 couples will be eligible to share leave from April 2015, and that take up will be around 8%.  However, it is not clear whether significant numbers of fathers will take up Shared Parental Leave in practice.

On one hand, there does appear to be evidence that fathers will welcome the new proposals. Research conducted by Working Families found that many fathers wanted to increase the amount of time they spent at home with their children. Indeed, many fathers, particularly those in the 26-35 age group, felt resentful towards their employers because of their poor work-life balance.

These findings are echoed by the IPPR, which found that one in five fathers wanted to change their working patterns, and another one in five wanted to spend more time with their baby, but couldn’t because of financial or workplace reasons. Another report found that over half (57%) of fathers working full time wanted to reduce their hours to spend more time with their children.

Cultural and financial barriers

However, despite the apparent desire among fathers to spend more time with their children, considerable barriers remain.

Employers in a study for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) felt that the continued widespread belief that childcare is primarily a women’s responsibility would limit the uptake, and thus immediate impact, of the legislation, particularly in male-dominated industries where such attitudes were considered to be more prevalent.

Similarly, the Institute of Leadership and Management found that while both employees and employers both considered the new legislation to be ‘a positive thing’, there remained significant financial and cultural barriers to fathers taking up extended periods of leave following the birth of a child. Indeed, such barriers already impact on the uptake of paternity leave – with less than 10% of fathers taking more than two weeks paternity leave, and a quarter taking less than two weeks.

It seems that cultural barriers to men taking time off for their families are often ingrained in company culture. The ILM found that fewer fathers than mothers perceived their employer to be supportive of them taking leave following the birth of a child. Indeed, in the BIS study, many employers that offered enhanced paternity pay openly admitted that they would not extend this as they did not want to encourage male employees to take more leave.

Such attitudes reinforce the underlying stigma attached to men taking extended time off for their families. A recent study of new mothers and fathers found there was considerable concern that fathers would compromise their careers by taking shared parental leave, and that they may be “thought less of at work”.

The same study found that the low rate of statutory pay available to men during paternity/shared parental leave was also likely to limit uptake. It concluded that, for the majority of families, particularly those where men were the main household earners, shared parental leave was an unaffordable option.

Support for new fathers in the workplace

These findings have important implications for the performance and management of men who have become fathers in the workplace. For example, negative feelings regarding work-life balance can have a detrimental impact on employee productivity and motivation.

However, many forward-thinking organisations are now beginning to provide more support for new fathers, such as enhanced paternity rights, workshops on becoming a father, and specific line manager training on how to support new fathers. Citi, the London School of Economics and the National Grid are some well-known examples of good practice in this area. And it appears to work – the creation of a culture of support for fatherhood within the National Grid resulted in an increase of 25% in the take-up of two week paid paternity leave, and an increase of 6% in the take up of unpaid seven-week childcare breaks.

It is not just the fathers that benefit from their ability to spend more time with their children. Research has consistently shown that their children also benefit. A study last year by the OECD found that fathers who took leave, particularly those taking two weeks or more, were more likely to carry out childcare related activities when their children were young. It also found that children with highly involved fathers tended to perform better in cognitive test scores.

Therefore, it seems that there is much to be gained from the introduction of Shared Parental Leave – for mothers, fathers, their children and their employers. However, it is not a panacea. In order to realise these benefits, organisations will first need to identify, and then address, the cultural and financial barriers which prevent many fathers from taking up their shared leave entitlement.

Further information:

Shared Parental Leave: a good practice guide for employers and employees (ACAS, 2014)

Case studies: National Grid – supporting working fathers, IN Equal Opportunities Review, No 251 Oct 2014, pp17-19 (Ref. A52178)

With time on their side (flexible working for young fathers), IN HR Magazine, Apr 2014, pp55-57 (Ref. A49479)

Shared opportunity: parental leave in UK business (Institute of Leadership and Management, 2014)

Citi and LSE: supporting working fathers, IN Equal Opportunities Review, No 230 Nov 2012, pp23-25 (Ref. A42201)

If you would like to find out more about how to support new fathers in the workplace, the Information Service has collated a number of resources that can help. Abstracts and access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.

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