Shared parental leave: time for dads to take the career hit?

Are men going to start taking 12 months off to look after babies? Donna Ferguson looks at what the new rules for shared parental leave will mean in practice for men and women in the workplace.

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shared parental leave

The new rules for shared parental leave mean that, for the first time, fathers will be able to take 52 weeks off work after the birth of their child.

But will they do so? And if not, why not?

Quick recap on the new shared parental leave rules

Shared parental leave is a new type of statutory leave that allows employed parents to split up the year's leave that, in the past, only mothers were entitled to.

Under shared parental leave, mothers are legally required to take at least two weeks off as maternity leave following the birth, and fathers (or, in the case of same-sex partners, the 'non-biological' parent) are still entitled to two weeks' paternity leave.

The remaining 50 weeks of statutory leave can then be divided up between the parents - but not exactly as they wish. Each parent can only take three blocks of leave, and each block must last at least a week (you can't split the leave so each of you does two or three days a week). Parents can, however, take leave at the same time, or consecutively, and can choose how long each block will be and when it will take place.

What will this mean in practice?

The law firm Linklaters surveyed 250 employees working for FTSE100 employers, and found that 63% of those surveyed would, in principle, be interested in taking shared parental leave.

The firm then asked these employees whether they'd still be interested if their pay fell dramatically while they took that leave.

The vast majority - 70% - said no.

Your rights to pay while on statutory parental leave

Unless an employer offers enhanced pay for shared parental leave, then neither the mother or the father will receive anything other than statutory pay during the period they are on parental leave.

Why? Because there is no legal requirement for an employer to offer enhanced pay to a male or a female worker who is taking shared parental leave. This is the case even if the employer offers its female workers an enhanced maternity pay package while they are on maternity leave.

Whether this, in fact, turns out to be discriminatory is a question that will need to be tested and determined in the courts - but if they determine that it is discriminatory, it could in fact be bad news for working mothers. Law firm Howard Kennedy has suggested that, to avoid the risk of discrimination, some employers may withdraw enhanced maternity pay from new mothers rather than extending it to fathers.

So far, only a very small minority of employers (such as Deloitte, Shell, PwC, Citi and Linklaters) have pledged to offer enhanced parental leave and to match what they give to female employees on maternity leave.

That means that most parents who are considering shared parental leave will currently be looking at taking the leave on statutory pay. Statutory pay for both parental leave and maternity leave is 90% of your salary for six weeks, but after that it drops to just £138.18 a week (or less). When the baby is nine months old, it stops completely - so the last three months of statutory leave are completely unpaid.

The problems with shared parental leave

The government estimates that likely take-up of the new right for shared parental leave will be just 2% to 6%.

That's hardly surprising, if maternity leave pay is enhanced by employers and parental leave is not. According to uSwitch, household incomes typically drop by 30% during maternity leave - forcing one in two families currently take on debt - so refusing a maternity pay enhancement in favour of statutory parental leave is not something many parents will be willing or able to consider.

But is there more to it than that? Even when it comes to taking their paternity leave, recruitment firm Robert Half says that two out of every three fathers fails to their maximum allocation. Financial considerations are cited as the main reason for this by 62% of fathers, followed by social pressures (41%), excessive workload (34%) and how they will be perceived in the workplace (25%).

And that's just paternity leave - which lasts a maximum of two weeks. When it comes to shared parental leave, potentially for a much longer period, the Linklaters study found that 62% of men are concerned that taking it would damage their career prospects - and 50% said they would be less likely to take it if other men in their organisation opted not to take it.

Working fathers, in other words, are finally having to face the same career dilemmas and choices that working mothers have battled with for decades.

And that, undoubtedly, can only be a good thing for our economy. According to the latest figures released by the Office for National Statistics, women typically earn almost 10% less than men.

Delve deeper into the data, however, and you'll find that women now earn marginally more than men in their 20s and 30s. It's only when female workers hit child-bearing age that this trend reverses.

Shared parental leave is therefore an opportunity for employers to stop forcing their most talented, successful, highly paid female workers to choose between their children and their careers. It's an opportunity to ensure our country's talent pool of workers is as wide as it could possibly be in future decades.

And it's an opportunity to create a more equal society, where children who close their eyes and imagine a pilot or an air traffic controller or a CEO (three of the highest paid jobs in the ONS data) are just as likely to see a woman as a man.

One small step

Of course, this isn't going to happen overnight. But by paying mothers and fathers on parental leave the same as they pay mothers on maternity leave, employers can - in one small step - take a giant leap forward.

Until they do so, sadly, it simply won't make any financial sense for couples to share their leave, even if the woman is the higher earner (as one in three working mothers are, according to My Family Care). Especially, in fact, if she is the higher earner - since the highest-earning mothers are most likely to work for companies that want to encourage them back into the workplace by offering enhanced maternity pay.

Alanis Morissette might describe that as ironic, but it's more than that. The reality is that we need a cultural shift to take place before we will see new parents sharing their leave. The new rules are a step in the right direction, sure - but we need to see employers and employees demonstrate their backing for shared parental leave before we will see a change in behaviour. This will mean not only enhancing statutory pay for parents of both genders on parental leave, but also a change in attitude in the workplace. Only then will we truly start to see the rights created for parents by these new rules start to have any real effect.

What do you think of the new rules? Will you be taking up shared parental leave? Let us know what you think using the comments box below!

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