A year ago today, a revolutionary shared parental leave policy was introduced in the UK, meaning that men and women could share their allocated pay and leave after they had a baby, including via adoption. So far, however, the uptake has been poor, with just one per cent of fathers availing themselves of the shared parental leave (SPL) scheme since April 2015.
The scheme had been introduced to allow for mothers to return to work earlier, to get back to careers that are, of course, disrupted by having babies. It seems, though, that many new parents are not eager to divide their parental leave so soon after the birth of child.
Writing in The Observer magazine last month, Johnny Davis, a father who did take SPL, pointed out that just “two per cent of companies have seen a significant uptake of SPL”.
“I was the first man in my company to take SPL,” he says. “I’m still the only man in my company to have taken it.”
Indeed, the very fact that Davis has taken parental leave was enough to warrant a cover story in the Sunday newspaper supplement, which opened with the sentence: “Last December, while the rest of my office was settling into its Christmas lunch, I was singing ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’.”
The shared parental leave policy is a good start, a way of beginning to move the story beyond the dad-as-babysitter narrative
Missing a work social do to look after the kids would not be a particularly thrilling or noteworthy event for a woman to recount, but there is still a sense that men looking after their own children are benevolent babysitters, rare hot dads to be cooed at as they carry their babies about the place in a sling. You should blog about this, people will tell them, or at least pitch your story to a broadsheet newspaper.
The reasons for the lack of uptake of SPL are manifold and complicated, however. According to The Telegraph, a new survey – of more than 1,000 parents and 200 businesses by My Family Care and the Women’s Business Council – found that “‘women (55%) refusing to share their maternity leave” was a major reason for the policy’s poor performance over the past year.
“Refusing to share” sounds a little petulant, but the reality is that women are actively encouraged to breastfeed their children until they are at least six months old, and so, for many women, it makes sense for them to be the ones to stay at home after the birth of a child.
Other reasons given for the low participation in the scheme include it being “financially unworkable” and the “lack of awareness” surrounding it.
The fact is too that having a newborn is only the beginning. It is, of course, a screaming, terrifying, wonderful beginning, but there are many more years of parenting to come, with sharing of duties between parents and the state and childcare providers. Until there is affordable childcare, most parents will be making huge compromises, with men and women (but usually women) having to change the way they work and earn and progress in their careers.
The shared parental leave policy is a good start, a way of beginning to move the story beyond the dad-as-babysitter narrative, but it’s clear there is plenty more to be done: to make this scheme more attractive to new parents, and to ensure that gender equality between parents lasts beyond the first few months of a child’s life.