Why the UK is lagging behind on parental leave

27 Apr 2021 By Dónall Breen and Raoul Parekh

The government could learn lessons from other jurisdictions to improve the uptake of SPL, say Dónall Breen and Raoul Parekh

The government’s recent decision to vote in favour of a bill allowing ministers formal paid maternity leave was long overdue. It seemed odd it took so long, considering that the first female minister was appointed in 1929 (Margaret Bondfield, if you’re interested). Fittingly, for our purposes, Bondfield was minister of labour.

However, while the government’s decision provides six months of paid maternity leave to female ministers, it offers no entitlement at all to fathers, exposing an uncomfortable truth in modern family leave structures. Women are still expected to take extended periods of time away from work for childcare responsibilities – and paid accordingly. Meanwhile, men are typically only seen away from the office for two weeks before coming back to continue as normal.

The take up of shared parental leave (SPL) in the UK, which sees couples share the 52-week maternity leave period, has been abysmal. Around 2 per cent is the generally accepted figure. Like most things in life, that decision is often driven by money.

The government made the decision that many companies do: handsomely gold plate maternity leave while leaving other family leave entitlements on the backburner.

There are political and philosophical arguments about what is the right approach, but the numbers speak for themselves. When Aviva gave all parents equal paid family leave, new fathers at the company took an average of 22 weeks’ paternity leave, versus an average of two weeks before the new policy was introduced. In fact, 97 per cent of fathers took more than two weeks and 32 per cent worked flexibly when they returned.

A hard truth of the junction of family and professional leave is that taking time out of work leads to a career penalty. It should not be, but it is. Because women can and do take more time out, that penalty is usually imposed on women. The only real way of levelling the playing field is to offer the same financial incentive to both partners so that there isn’t a financial hit if both decide to take time out, and taking extended leave becomes normal for all employees. 

The UK government had the best of intentions when introducing SPL. But its decision to not even offer it to their own office holders is an implicit statement on how seriously they expect other UK employers to take the bull by the horns.

The gold standard in this respect is Finland. Starting in 2021, Finland will give all parents, regardless of their gender or whether they are a child's biological parents, 164 days of family leave (about 5.5 months). A single parent can take the amount of two parents.

Finland already scores as the third most gender equal country in the world. The UK is twentieth. But Ireland, which has no mandatory employer-paid family leave entitlement (and no SPL at all), is sixth. So it seems family leave entitlement doesn’t tell the full story if the end goal is true gender equality – but it would certainly be a start.

Dónall Breen is an associate and Raoul Parekh is a partner at GQ|Littler

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