Sharing the joy

Monday 14 May 2018

Mark GaleHaving recently returned to work from a period of Shared Parental Leave I couldn’t agree more with Working Families’ critique of the Government’s policy, launched today.  

The paper, supported by Young Women’s Trust, comes as the Government is encouraging more partners to “Share the Joy” by taking up Shared Parental Leave. While this is a positive move to boost awareness of the policy (take up is at just 2 per cent), I wonder if it misunderstands some of the reasons why fathers are reluctant to take additional leave.   

Firstly, the system can appear to be overwhelmingly complex and there remains little understanding from employers about the rules allowing staff to share leave and pay. As an employee of Young Women’s Trust, I’ve been lucky enough to be fully supported to take parental leave. Many employers still do not properly understand the policy - my wife works for a public-sector body and was told we couldn’t take leave at the same time as we had requested, something we know to be untrue. Our own determination to make it work was all that stopped us giving up and I am certain there will be many other people who are put off at this first hurdle.  

Secondly, the financial hit for many parents can be a step too far, especially for those on low pay. Many employers will continue to offer statutory pay only for shared parental leave, even when they offer an enhanced rate maternity pay.  Even when employers offer enhanced rates of pay, as Young Women’s Trust does, sharing leave over an extended period remains financially difficult. I was able to take a month off to be with my wife and daughter in the early days but we would have suffered a financial penalty as a couple if I had extended this any further, much as I had wanted to. For many parents, the decision to operate on two reduced salaries is not one they are able to make. 

Thirdly, under the current system, increasing the amount of leave available to partners reduces the leave available for mothers. If parents wish to take time off together, for example for reasons of bonding and support in the first weeks of a child’s life, the length of time for which a child will have at least one parent at home is reduced.   

Finally, while my own desire to take Shared Parental Leave had the enthusiastic support of managers and colleagues, many employers continue to see the desire to take time off as a lack of commitment. This replicates the discrimination mothers have faced for decades but nonetheless makes many fathers unprepared to risk the consequences. This is further entrenched by the fact that the right to parental leave is not a day one employment right in the same way that maternity leave is. This not only penalises fathers who move jobs while their partner is pregnant but sends the message that childcare is best left to women. 

Raising awareness is therefore important but I fear it won’t lead to the dramatic increase in uptake the Government desires. A separate period of well-paid, standalone partner’s leave would address concerns about money and trade-offs between parents, while a focus on raising employers’ awareness would help simplify the process for parents. But this must be matched by a culture shift. Making parental leave a day one right would send a welcome message but must be backed by strong action against employers who discriminate against both mothers and fathers taking leave.  

My own time off has been incredible and I would encourage others to “Share the Joy” - I just hope the Government can improve the system to make it easier for more people to do so.