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Shared parental leave: switching the boardroom for baby care

26 February 2015. Published by Rachael Ellis, Associate

Nick Clegg’s new baby - shared parental leave - has been born and, would-be dads, it means you can now spend almost a year off work with your bundle of joy. Why then, are you all so keen to stay at the office?

Shared Parental Leave 

Under new rules, parents, including adoptive parents, of babies born on or after 1 April 2015 can now share up to 50 weeks of leave between them. New mums must take a compulsory two-week recovery period after childbirth but thereafter the leave can be taken in any combination, either together or separately.

Under the previous regime, new fathers could only take one or two weeks’ ‘ordinary’ paid paternity leave and up to 26 weeks of ‘additional’ paid paternity leave provided the mum (or co-adopter) returned to work.

According to the Deputy Prime Minister, behind the changes is a desire "to drive a real cultural shift and help working dads play a greater role in their child's early months." But it seems working dads are not quite ready to switch spreadsheets for CBeebies.  

In a poll by job site Glassdoor, three quarters of men surveyed said they didn’t believe leave should be divided equally. Almost 90 percent said that they would not take up the maximum period offered after their baby was born and almost half (42 per cent) would prefer to only take the minimum period of paternity leave.

For some new dads, the biggest fear is losing status at work rather than the thought of taking on baby care. Jeremy Davies from think tank the Fatherhood says: "Is status anxiety an issue?  Yes.  You've got to feel confident that if you do this it's not going to mess your career up."  The concern was evident in a survey by Linklaters, where 62 per cent of men thought that taking that time off for shared parental leave could be career damaging.

While the concerns are understandable, they fail to recognise that for years it's been accepted that women will risk foregoing their career to be the primary caregiver. Nick Clegg has pointed out in response to some of the critics of shared parental leave: "What the critics are really saying is that companies can afford to lose a woman for a few months, but they can’t afford to lose a man. The message is loud and clear: women, we don’t need you. Or, at least, we don’t need you as much. What utter rubbish."

There is also the consideration of pay. Dads on paternity leave are entitled to just £138.18 per week, rather less than the minimum wage, and nearly five out of six employers refuse to boost the statutory minimum. Again, women have been entitled to the same rate or less since maternity leave was introduced. It is unfortunate that it's taken the introduction of shared parental leave to bring this into focus. But with the debate reignited, perhaps this is the time for employers to re-examine their parental leave policies – both men and women are suffering otherwise.

Some employers – including a handful of top firms including Deloitte, Shell and PwC – have led the way and promised to match what they pay during shared parental leave with their existing maternity and adoption packages. But very few others are doing the same. As is so often the case with changes to employment laws, businesses will no doubt be concerned about red tape. And, with the scheme set to cost businesses more than £17 million in its first year alone, I suppose they have a point.

In the age of supersonic strollers and babycinos isn’t it about time employers and employees (male and female, parent and non-parent) started championing a more progressive approach? How can an initiative like shared parental leave, which bridges the gap between working mothers' and fathers' experiences of infant care and promotes equal flexible working come up against this much resistance? What does that say about us? Primary caregivers have long been assumed to be mothers rather than fathers, but in a society that has equal marriage between homosexual and heterosexual couples, women in positions of significant responsibility in the workplace and a lot of single parent families, this assumption cannot continue to go unchallenged.

Dads, you may not feel ready for full-time parenting, but have a think about what shared parental leave is offering: it's not quite as scary as you think!

Rachael Ellis

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