I've just spent the last six weeks off work. Fully paid, with my partner and our newborn baby, and without taking a single day of annual leave. I've exercised my right to take shared parental leave (SPL) and I'm here to say that, for all its complexity and limitations, SPL is a good thing for new parents. But it could be much better.
I'm going to remove my hat as a legal adviser to employers for this article and talk about SPL from the point of view of a user. If you're looking for a neat summary of the legal framework, then I can highly recommend Amy Wren's piece uploaded just before SPL's delivery date.
Choosing to take SPL was one of the best decisions that I have ever made. At the risk of sounding like a mushy new parent, my six weeks on SPL (or, to be precise, two weeks' paternity leave and four weeks' SPL) were the best weeks of my life. The opportunity to enjoy those first weeks is something that I will always treasure and I am massively grateful that it was available for me.
While returning to work at any time would have been a wrench and it would have been great to have taken longer, we all felt much more comfortable with me returning to work after six weeks when things had, relatively speaking, settled down.
I'm conscious I'm also very fortunate to work in a highly supportive workplace. Farrers has taken the decision broadly to match its enhanced SPL pay to its maternity provisions, allowing me to take my leave on full pay, and I felt actively encouraged and supported in taking extra leave.
Why is it important?
Since my return to work, the news has served as a reminder of the importance of SPL and how, in many ways, there is so much more to do in relation to addressing gender (im)balance in parenting and its impact upon the workplace. Last week, a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies highlighted the (depressingly unsurprising) fact that the gender pay gap increases after women have a baby. Male employment patterns were almost totally unaffected by having children. This week, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee found that the number of expectant and new mothers forced to leave their jobs has almost doubled in the past ten years. For whatever reason, there appears to be a clear link between the association of women with childcare and diverging experiences between men and women in the workplace. I fear that progress will continue to be fitful in relation to pay and employment until there is greater equality between the sexes when it comes to raising children.
There remains a prevailing culture that bringing up a child is a woman's work. To some extent, this assumption is natural (for all the will in the world, a breastfed baby ultimately only needs its mother to survive), but cultural and legal factors exacerbate inequality. Culturally, there is still an overwhelming expectation that mothers should look after babies – as I've discovered by trying to find changing facilities in pubs and restaurants that aren't located in the ladies' bathroom. And sometimes, even when people are being friendly, they are conveying an expectation about gender roles: no one ever congratulates my partner on holding our baby or changing her nappy.
The law still reinforces cultural assumptions rather than challenges them. SPL constitutes progress but the legal framework still pushes mothers into taking responsibility for the bulk of childcare on their own. No matter how generous an employer's SPL provisions are, any period of leave taken by both parents together will cut the actual length of time the child has a working parent at home with them. SPL therefore forces couples to choose between time with a mother and time with another parent. With the cost of childcare often outweighing pay on return to work, many couples have to accept a financial penalty as a result of taking leave together. Until the other parent is provided leave on equal pay terms and in addition to, rather than instead of, maternity rights, I suspect that mothers will continue to shoulder the overwhelming majority of childcare – even in circumstances in which couples would prefer a greater balance.
What can employers do?
Even without changes in the law, there are ways in which employers can help encourage equality in parenting within their organisation, should they wish to do so. Firstly, matching shared parental pay to any enhanced maternity pay terms is a great start – and not doing so could be said to be a fairly clear indication on behalf of an employer as to who it considers should look after children (and may potentially be discriminatory in any case). Secondly, SPL is complicated and HR staff should be adequately trained on how it works. I know a number of people who have tried to use SPL only to find that the HR representative at their workplace had no understanding of SPL – such as informing an employee that both parents can't take leave at the same time. At the very least, HR representatives should be encouraged to inform parents of their right to use SPL when they are informed of their maternity/paternity rights – based on discussions I'm having with new parents, this is not happening in a lot of workplaces. Thirdly, consider training managers to challenge certain attitudes to parenting. Many of the new dads I know say that, while their employers have SPL policies, they've been given clear indications from their managers that it would not be in their best interests to use it.
Remember, it's not all financially negative for an employer – since SPL is instead of the mother's maternity leave, every mother in your workplace using it will return to work earlier than they would otherwise have done. But over and above that – while SPL may be complicated and it may pose an extra financial risk to the business, being serious about addressing gender equality in the work place includes encouraging an equal attitude to parenting.