Government has ‘missed opportunity’ to reform workplace support for fathers, say MPs

Official report declines to reform shared parental leave or paternity pay as experts suggest a ‘revolution’ is needed

The government has missed a crucial opportunity to increase equality in the workplace and encourage fathers to take more parental leave, according to MPs on the women and equalities committee.

The government’s response to the committee’s inquiry into fathers in the workplace, which was published today, suggested a need for further research and debate about how to fund and implement greater support for fathers. 

But Maria Miller, the women and equalities committee chair and Conservative MP for Basingstoke, said an opportunity to create family-friendly policies had been lost. Specific suggestions including scrapping shared parental leave, increasing statutory paternity pay to 90 per cent of salary and advertising all jobs as flexible had not been addressed, she said. 

“Our inquiry heard from a range of well-informed voices including employers, unions and fathers themselves. Many cited the poor take-up of key initiatives such as shared parental leave as a sign they are not working,” Miller said. 

“It is also surprising that the government’s response does not refer to its own recently published research on the gender pay gap, which found that if men and women took similar amounts of unpaid family leave the gender pay gap would decrease by 13 per cent.”

Despite the setback, Miller said she felt encouraged that ministers recognised the need for debate about the costs and benefits of improving workplace support for fathers and families. 

The committee published its original report, Fathers and the workplace, in March to focus on how to create more opportunities for fathers on lower incomes – or those who faced other barriers at work – to take a greater role in raising their children.

One key recommendation was that the government should consider the benefits of introducing a new standalone policy that would allow fathers to take 12 weeks of specific leave, as an alternative to shared parental leave. 

Sam Smethers, chief executive at the Fawcett Society, told People Management that she thought the government had failed to address one of the biggest inequalities in British society. 

“We need nothing short of a revolution in our approach to leave for dads, and yet what we have is a government in denial,” Smethers said. “This is not the 1950s. The world has radically changed and government policy must urgently catch up.”

Smethers added that shared parental leave had failed to meet expectations because it did not “start from a presumption of equal responsibility to care”. 

“Until we create a longer, better-paid period of ‘use it or lose it’ leave for fathers that they can afford to take, we won't make any meaningful progress on closing the pay gap and pregnancy discrimination will continue to be an everyday occurrence," she said.

The inquiry followed the committee’s report on the gender pay gap in March 2016, which found that many fathers wanted to be active participants in childcare and that shared care between parents could prove key to reducing pay inequality. 

Chloe Chambraud, gender equality director at Business in the Community, said she had spoken to many men, particularly younger fathers, who wanted a better work-life balance but were not getting the right opportunities. 

“For example, fathers are twice as likely to have flexible working requests turned down as mothers. This represents a significant risk to businesses and may result in their best talent – both male and female – leaving for employers that are adapting to these changes and are better equipped to balance the needs of individuals and the organisation,” Chambraud said. 

“While much of the effort around workplace gender equality understandably focuses on women, if we want to truly change the world of work it’s vital that we hear from men too.” 

The government said in its response that it was still committed to shared parental leave, and that the policy was still “relatively new and has had little time to bed in”. 

It added that an evaluation of shared parental leave and pay had begun. Its findings would provide the basis of determining whether and how shared parental leave and parental pay may need to be reformed – including consideration of a dedicated period of leave for fathers and partners.