Amy Sinclair is an employment solicitor, who has returned to work after having had a baby. Here, she writes about her personal experience of shared parental leave and wonders why more parents don’t take up the scheme…
I have recently returned to work from a period of maternity leave. It included a stint of shared parental leave – my husband joined me for two months so we could care for our baby together.
It was a real highlight of my leave. My husband thoroughly enjoyed it, and I believe it has set us up well for my return to work, knowing that we both have the confidence, knowledge and desire to look after our child so that this responsibility can be truly shared. In fact, it has left us both wondering why more parents aren’t sharing parental leave.
The short answer seems to be two-fold: (1) due to the nature of the regime i.e. that it must be shared by the mother/primary carer to the father/secondary carer, rather than being a standalone right; and (2) due to a lack of progressive attitudes in the workplace.
When we first considered the idea of shared parental leave my husband and I laughed about the fact that he had to ask me for and I had to “give” him some of my maternity leave. Whilst a part of me rather enjoyed having the control over this right, I thought it unfair that I had to give something up for him to benefit, and more unfair that the father’s right was contingent on the mother.
We are striving for equality – why then should a man have to ask and seek consent for a right that women are freely given? Shouldn’t men be entitled to a stand-alone right, and wouldn’t this put mothers and fathers on a more equal playing field when it comes to balancing their careers and childcare? In Sweden fathers are provided with “daddy quotas” on a “use it or lose it” basis; the UK’s legislation isn’t even a diluted version of this.
When we told friends and family that we were taking shared parental leave and that my husband would be taking two months off work we received a range of reactions, from “what a modern man!” to “what impact will that have on his career?” to “if one of my male employees asked for two months off, I would think he was a waster and should be shown the door” (said family member shall remain nameless).
These comments are all indicative of the sort of culture we continue to live in and which needs to change if we are truly striving for equality. Such changes need to come from the top, i.e. from government, from senior management and from leaders of all levels in the workplace.
So what can employers do to ensure a healthy culture towards parental leave and flexible working for both men and women?
Ensure employees know about their rights to shared parental leave and that regimes such as this and flexible working are discussed and promoted around the company.
Provide accessible and transparent policies and procedures
Ensure that shared parental leave and flexible working policies and procedures are available for employees on the company’s intranet or somewhere readily accessible to employees so that employees know how they work and can consider them.
Make it financially viable
This is an obvious one. My husband and I were lucky that our employers’ policies combined to mean that we did not miss out financially. Had they not, we certainly would have thought twice about sharing the leave, and appreciate for many couples it may not be an option at all.
Affordability is undoubtedly a huge factor and it’s no wonder the uptake of shared parental leave is low when many employers are not offering any form of enhanced pay for this regime. Like some other employers, Aviva have recently changed its policies so that parents will be eligible to the same amount of paid and unpaid time off, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or how they became a parent (birth, adoption or surrogacy). In the UK, Aviva is offering up to one year of leave, of which 26 weeks is at full basic pay for each parent employed by the company within the first 12 months of a child’s arrival. It will be interesting to see what impact these changes have on the uptake of parental leave at Aviva and similar companies.
Treat men and women equally
Several men I have spoken to who have taken parental leave noted that their employer did not treat them in the same way as women going off on maternity leave who are typically treated to some sort of send-off or given a gift. One commented that his team didn’t really know what to say or do when he was going off which made him feel that perhaps he wasn’t doing the “right” thing. Employers should treat men and women in the same way when it comes to parenting so as to normalise and equalise behaviour.
Make examples of people who have done it
The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, led the way by taking four months parental leave on the birth of his child, a right that all Facebook employees are entitled to. If it starts from the top it’s more likely to filter through.
So why should employers take these steps?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that balance and equality makes for a satisfied and contented workforce, which in turn makes for a successful and thriving company.