The system is failing new parents – here’s how to fix it

Current parental leave laws hit new fathers particularly hard, says Chris Parke, but the new government will have a golden opportunity to make drastic improvements

As one of her last acts as prime minister, Theresa May launched a consultation into statutory paternity leave in the UK, which will consider whether new fathers should receive 12 weeks of paid leave – a vast improvement on the two weeks they currently receive. May described this as the “first step towards equalising the roles of men and women at home and in work”. As one of the least family-friendly of the world’s richest countries, this is a welcome step forward for working dads. With a new government on the horizon from 12 December, it’s time for the incoming prime minister to finish what May started.

With less than 10 per cent of organisations offering more than the statutory leave, and a very small number, such as drinks giant Diageo, pioneering equality for both parents by offering fully paid 26-week equal parental leave, there is still a way to go to make longer paternity leave the accepted norm.

The conversation around women’s maternity rights is well-established – although far from a solved problem – but fathers’ feelings have historically had little to no consideration at all. Research has highlighted that men now face a ‘paternity paradox’, of wanting successful careers and being devoted fathers, while experiencing the same difficulties that women have encountered for generations when it comes to balancing work and children.

In a survey of working parents we conducted, over half (51 per cent) of respondents thought that fathers who took shared parental leave would experience a detrimental effect on their careers. Furthermore, 53 per cent of fathers feared judgement if they chose shared parental leave, versus 34 per cent of mothers. As a result, 51 per cent of fathers wouldn’t want to share parental leave, versus 41 per cent of mothers. 

Given the importance of the first few months of a baby’s life, it is imperative that fathers have time off to bond with their newborn. In 2015, the government introduced shared parental leave (SPL), designed to allow couples to share leave following the birth or adoption of a child. However, according to the TUC, just one per cent of new parents used SPL last year. Clearly, the current system is unfit for purpose. 

Although this marks a welcome step in the right direction, for May’s solution to succeed, companies need to offer at least 90 per cent of a father’s salary for the first four weeks of parental leave. If this isn’t made available, it will be unlikely to have any take-up, and could ultimately become a barrier for new fathers, depending on their wage. Having a child is one of the most financially stressful occasions in someone’s life, and many families are unlikely to be able to do without the father’s wage at this difficult time. If fathers cannot afford to take the time off, then the policy becomes obsolete. 

A reform in the perception of parental – and specifically paternity – leave is essential now more than ever. In this day and age, where more and more people are migrating away from ‘traditional’ parenting, and fathers are adopting the role of the main caregiver while mothers return to work, now is the time to revolutionise the way new fathers are supported. ONS figures indicate that between April and June 2019 there were 1.13m stay-at-home fathers in the UK.

Gender aside, our research also showed that more than two-thirds (70 per cent) feel they are failing as parents in some way because of work pressures. Furthermore, over half (56 per cent) agreed that their career progression slowed down after they had a child. But with the right level of support, the relationship between parenthood and professional success can be nurtured.

Historically, the conversation around parental leave has predominantly been about working mothers, excluding fathers from participating. The situation for women is by no means solved, but it is important that we address all parental leave requirements and flexibility restrictions. Gender equality shouldn’t mean that being a working parent has to be as hard for men as it has in the past for women – ultimately, both men and women should be offered flexibility as they adapt to their new family dynamic. We must, of course, continue to enable organisations to cater to working mothers, but let’s not leave fathers behind.

Parental leave should not be cut short or marred with fear over the impact it will have on someone’s career. The government must act now to extend statutory parental leave and end the paternity paradox.

Chris Parke is CEO and co-founder of Talking Talent