A study conducted by the commercial law firm EMW has found that only 8,700 new parents took advantage of the right to shared parental leave in the last 12 months, less than 1% of the total that could.
Shared parental leave, which was introduced in April 2015, gives new parents the opportunity to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of statutory pay between them, rather than the traditional ‘maternity leave’ model. Although, given these pretty remarkable opportunities, 666,100 and 221,000 of mothers and fathers opted to take maternity and paternity leave instead.
It was predicted that of the 285,000 working couples that were eligible, between 2 to 8 percent would take part in the scheme. In Norway, Sweden and Iceland, where similar schemes have been running for a few years, and new parents are paid 80-100% of their income, 85-90% of fathers take up the rights.
Instituted by the UK government in order to boost gender equality in the workplace and reduce the loss of earning of new mothers, as we can see the uptake has been paltry to say the least.
But why is that?
Talking on their findings, the EMW has said that one route cause for such small numbers may be the, “cultural stigma of men taking lengthy amounts of time off work to care for their children”; the ever increasing financial pressures of new parenting, and that parents might just not be aware of the scheme.
“There could be other, more effective ways to help businesses provide family friendly policies, such as tax breaks for childcare provisions, in-work crèches and flexible working,” said Jon Taylor, EMW principal.
“Employers must take a proactive approach towards leave for new parents — not only for mothers, but fathers too. If an employer is seen as sympathetic to the needs of new parents, they are more likely to enjoy retention of staff.”
Regarding the cultural stigma, this isn’t just moralistic posturing as some might try to dismiss it. When the scheme was introduced in Sweden many men were reluctant to take part too. And the 6 percent of fathers who did take time off were derided with a Swedish term that means “velvet dads”, and stigmatized at work for being unmanly.
Disappointed in the uptake, the Swedish government created an incentive: it allocated 30 days’ leave solely to the father on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. If they didn’t take the month off, the couple as a whole would lose a month’s paid leave. Kind of brutal, but effective. In 2002 this was increased to 60 days, and as of 2016 this was increased yet again to 3 months.
So should we expect to see something similar happening over here too? Probably.
In March, 46 MPs signed a letter, coordinated by MP David Lammy, to the minister for women and equalities, which argued that, “as long as women continue to take disproportionate responsibility for the care of children, the gender pay gap will persist”.
Calling for adaptation of the policy, David Lammy said, “It is blindingly obvious that we won’t see progress on gender equality both in and out of the workplace and we won’t see progress on active fatherhood until we have effective policies on shared parental leave in place.”
We need a policy that deals with reality. And the reality is this: people don’t know enough about shared parental leave, and men aren’t incentivised enough to take it up. This needs to change.