Last reviewed 13 September 2017

Gudrun Limbrick looks at the take-up of shared parental leave two years on.

We have long worked out that the traditional family picture of a mother at home looking after the children and the home and a father who leaves the family home to work and has limited input into his children’s lives does not suit every household. To this end, in 2015, the Government brought in a significant piece of legislation which was intended to bring much-needed flexibility to households wanting to move away from this rigid, traditional picture. While this legislation enabled fathers to as much parental leave after the birth of their child as the mother’s entitlement, practice appears to be demonstrating that the traditional picture in which the new father leaves the new mother to it appears to be still very much in evidence.

In April of 2015, maternity leave was effectively changed to parental leave which could be used equally by either parent, regardless of their gender. Thus, a new baby comes with 52 weeks of shared parental leave, 50 of which can be used by either of his or her two parents along with up to 39 weeks of statutory parental pay. Fathers will still be entitled to two weeks of paid paternity leave. At the time of the announcement, this was heralded as a step towards equality and a new flexibility for parents. More than two years down the line, however, it seems to have made very little difference at all.

Research carried out by Office Genie this spring has found that, from 1000 working people surveyed, only 5% of new fathers had taken up shared parental leave. Research by My Family Care in 2016 found that 4 of every 10 companies had not had a male employee take shared parental leave. It is not as easy as pinning the blame on the male of the species generally. Looking at Scandinavia, the picture is very different. In Sweden, for example, the take-up of paternity leave is around the 90% mark — a stark difference to British fathers.

There is little doubt among proud new parents that those first weeks and months are among the most special times in a child’s life and in a parent’s life. These times have primarily been enjoyed by mothers while, anecdotally, there seemed to be many would-be fathers chomping at the bit to be a part of these special moments. After all, once these times are gone, and they go quickly, they cannot be retrieved. There are also practical reasons for sharing parental leave. The father may not be the highest earner in the family, or the one with the most secure job, and it may make financial sense for the mother to return to work more quickly to keep the household finances in the best shape possible.

So, given these advantages of fathers taking leave, why is the take-up so low? As part of its survey, Office Genie asked fathers why they would not take up parental leave. Forty-seven per cent said that this was due to financial considerations. The second most common reason given for non-take-up was employer pressure.

Taking the financial considerations first, further relevant research has also been conducted. The charity, Working Families, found in 2016 that 48% of its survey respondents (300 fathers) said that they would not take up parental leave and a third said this was because they could not afford it. Statutory parental pay is around £140 a week which is not a considerable amount of money in comparison with some salaries. It is reasonable to imagine that this could mean a significant fall in household income. Office Genie, in its survey, found that this was not the only financial consideration however. It also noted the fact that fathers tending to earn more money than their female partners is of prime concern in family considerations about who takes parental leave. Men earning only the statutory parental pay level not only represents an absolute reduction in household income but also a relative one. The simple truth is that, in most families, fathers giving up their earnings represents a larger drop in household income than if the mother gives up her earnings. This disappointing truth about the gender pay gap has been brought into very clear focus recently in the revelations about BBC salary levels. Returning to the high Scandinavian take-up of parental leave, it is significant to note that up to 100% of their earnings are replaced while they are on parental leave. It cannot be a coincidence that with around 90% of earnings replaced, there is a 90% take-up rate.

The second reason given for non-take-up, employer pressure, is rather less tangible than household income but nonetheless was cited by a third of survey respondents. The suggestion is that men are encouraged by their companies not to take months away from the office in order to look after their new offspring. It seems likely that, additionally, a father may be concerned what would happen to his job in his absence if an employer were reluctant to see him go, and how many opportunities he might miss out on while his attention was focused on changing nappies and preparing feeds.

The final reason is perhaps more complex. Fifty-five per cent of mothers said that they did not want to share parental leave but wanted to be the primary carer of their new baby. This suggests that financial incentives alone will not change attitudes enormously.

From talking to men about this topic, it seems evident that there is still a stigma about men taking time away from work to look after children in some circles. Some men feel it is perhaps not a manly activity, others believe that this is what their bosses and colleagues will feel about them. And when it comes down to it, tradition is a very strong driving factor, whether or not we feel ourselves to be a traditional society. If things have been carried out in a particular way for generations, the majority of us tend to carry on in that fashion. Hence, as women have usually been the ones to swap their jobs for childcare, all things being equal, that is the way we carry on doing things.

Following the Swedish example, perhaps the only way to bring about genuine choice and encouragement for sharing parental leave is for employers to add to the statutory level of parental pay. The advantages to employers is that they have new parent employees who have had a period of absence, but who are ready and happy to return to work and have rounded home lives. The disadvantage however is twofold — the absence of a valued employee and the cost of paying them to be absent.

The key learning from this particular issue is that it is not enough to have legislation in place to make change a reality. While the legislation makes change possible, more proactive moves are needed to make people want to exploit those possibilities. Companies have a role not only to ensure their workers know about the opportunities available in terms of shared parental leave but also work with them to ensure that male employees are enabled to take up these opportunities. And as a society, we all need to work hard on changing our traditional picture into one that is more flexible and father-friendly.