Madeleine Thomson: A new era of shared parenting: reluctant fathers

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Homer Simpson, a sometimes reluctant, but always successful father
Homer Simpson, a sometimes reluctant, but always successful father

Shared parental leave (SPL) was brought into this world kicking and screaming on 5 April 2015. Aimed at providing greater choice and flexibility in caring for children during the first 12 months after birth, parents are entitled to split a total of 52 weeks’ leave, receiving some payment for 39 of those weeks. This represents an additional benefit on top of the existing two weeks’ statutory paternity leave available to fathers.

On the face of it, these rules are a step forward in achieving greater parenting parity between the sexes. As a child grows, the objective is that it should not only be the mother that bears responsibility for child care – something that ought to be reflected in our national working culture. In a truly equal society, expectant working parents should feel free to aspire to an equal sharing of parental leave.

Entitlements 

However, recent figures released by My Family Care suggest the vast majority of fathers are failing to take advantage of these new entitlements, with as little as 1 percent taking up their rights. Such a meagre response should come as no surprise; only a year has passed since the legislation came into effect and it was always likely to take time for the changes to take root. We might reasonably expect it to take a decade for parents to fully embrace these new entitlements.

In reality, uptake of SPL will be dictated by a couple’s financial situation. Unless an employer is particularly magnanimous, pay will continue to be set at the statutory level for 39 of the 52 weeks based on the salary of the parent on leave. For those mothers whose partner earns more, without an enhanced SPL allowance it makes no financial sense to sacrifice the more generous wage.

Inequality 

However, if the government is able to iron out these kinks then we may expect to see a shift in parents’ attitudes to childcare and parental leave. This shift will be vital in addressing the on-going inequality between the sexes in terms of career progression. Challenging the norm for new working mothers, propelling more women through the glass ceiling and fashioning a generation of nurturing fathers is a noble – and not unachievable – aim.

Of particular interest is the further expansion of these rights to include working grandparents from 2018. While expected to prove a popular option, the outcome is likely to be fewer fathers engaging in shared leave, as greater numbers of grandparents assume parental responsibility courtesy of their new rights.

Focus should therefore be put on efforts to encourage fathers to use their entitlements. Real change will come only with hard evidence. Only when we begin to see fathers bringing and winning claims that their careers have been held back as a result of taking shared parental leave will employers be forced to embrace the new rules and help drive engagement among male employees..

Top talent

For employers, the implications of the rules lie largely in the ability to recruit and hold on to top talent. A key concern for businesses should be on helping employees combine work and family, enabling them to carry on with their careers in parallel to their family lives. Any implementation will of course need to be consistent with a wider work culture of fairness and equality that focuses on increasing staff retention and engagement of both men and women.

It is ultimately advantageous for employers to position themselves as organisations that fully support shared parental leave. This will give companies competitive advantage in the marketplace, enabling them to attract female and male talent previously deterred by out of touch parental entitlements. In short, SPL is fundamentally beneficial for both employee and employer.

To listen to our free recent webinar considering the first anniversary of the Shared Parental leave policy, please click here

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About Madeleine Thomson

Madeleine is a Partner and Head of the Employment team at law firm Seddons. She acts predominantly for employers and has over 20 years’ experience in all aspects of employment law, including complex strategic issues involving TUPE, outsourcings, information and consultation on both national and cross jurisdictional restructures and transfers. She is regularly invited to attend client board meetings for her strategic input. One of her many areas of expertise is in industrial relations disputes, particularly in the construction industry where she advises on a whole range of issues including strike ballots, official and unofficial industrial action, picketing and injunctive remedies. She also provides training to directors and executives on the employment law issues that apply to every day working practices with a view to minimising the company’s exposure to risk of claims for unfair dismissal, discrimination, equal pay, whistleblowing and breach of family friendly legislation. Madeleine is an accredited Workplace Mediator and helps clients to resolve workplace disputes before they escalate into employment tribunal claims. Her clients span a wide range of sectors including construction, manufacturing, retail, insurance, travel, education and professional services.

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