Long reads

Can shared parental leave ever work?

23 Apr 2020 By Suzy Bashford

Some claim SPL should be scrapped 
or reformed, but a growing number of HR teams are managing to make it take off

The abysmally low take-up rate of shared parental leave (SPL), the policy introduced by the government in 2015, has been much reported. A poll of 1,000 UK employees by YouGov and Winckworth Sherwood, for instance, found just 7 per cent of workers currently take advantage of it.

SPL works by couples choosing how to share up to 50 weeks’ leave and up to 37 weeks’ pay between them in the first year, which they can take in blocks or in one go, and at the same time or separately – whatever suits. The policy, then, is unlike current paternity and maternity leave, which both subtly reinforce the idea that it is the mother (or primary carer) who should look after children rather than the father (or secondary carer) – maternity by offering generous amounts of leave, and paternity by typically offering a very small amount in comparison. So SPL, in theory, offers a solution to gender equality both in the workplace and at home. 

Historically, mothers have worried that taking extended leave after childbirth will be detrimental to their career progression and, similarly, fathers have bemoaned their lack of work-life balance will mean they miss out on important moments following the birth of their child. A catalyst for poor employee morale all round, then, and a perennial issue for employers when it comes to hanging on to senior, talented female staff.

In contrast, SPL allows dads to take time off immediately after the birth but also at later, pivotal stages in a baby’s development, such as teething or when a mother returns to work, for example. It recognises the importance of the father’s role on an ongoing basis.

As such, it’s something potentially increasingly of interest to the millennial generation, and the generations coming up behind them, says Jeremy Davies, head of communications at the Fatherhood Institute – and so can be a powerful way to hold on to talent. “Companies are starting to understand that with the younger generation of men, you’ve got to see them as ‘family people’,” he says. 

“The older generation were much more focused on careers. But if you look at surveys of work satisfaction, it’s men who are most dissatisfied with their work-life balance and it’s been like that for a long time. They feel like they’re owned by employers. They work long hours. They have longer commutes. We’re fed the idea that men are ‘all about power’ and want to be ‘out there in the world competing’, but actually that’s bollocks.”

Holly Birkett, co-director of the Equal Parenting Project at the University of Birmingham, reiterates the positive knock-on effect facilitating men being at home more has on women staying in the workplace. “While at an individual level more time off and maternity pay for women may look positive, actually it can lead to more women then dropping out and it affecting their earnings [detrimentally] over time,” she says.

So why, with these compelling individual and business benefits, is take-up still so poor? Is there hope this will eventually, perhaps gradually, improve? And how can the HR profession ensure this happens? Or does the system in fact need scrapping and replacing with something different altogether? 

The only short answer to all of the above is: it’s complicated. The biggest barrier to take-up is, inevitably, financial. Financial challenges are one of the top reasons cited by parents not taking up SPL, according to University of Birmingham research, which is why the CIPD has proposed – in its submission to the government regarding the reform of SPL – that it should be enhanced, with the government enhancing part of it but encouraging employers to enhance it as well if they’re able to.

“SPL is already working for some families, albeit a relatively small proportion,” says Claire McCartney, resource and inclusion adviser at the CIPD. “We believe key changes need to be implemented to really reap the benefits of SPL and encourage a larger proportion of working families to adopt it. Enhancement would certainly make this a more attractive offering. This would need to be balanced with what is affordable for organisations.” 

Dan Peyton, employment lawyer at McGuireWoods, adds: “The economics of shared parental leave does little to incentivise take-up. A lot of mothers who are employees will be entitled to enhanced maternity pay in addition to statutory payments. A father typically receives just two weeks’ paternity pay and shared parental pay stretches over a 37-week period, whereas statutory maternity pay is paid for up to 39 weeks. 

“So to make shared leave financially viable, a couple would need both to have six months fully paid parental leave entitlements to ensure that their household income remains the same. In most cases, it makes little financial sense to share leave. Even if parents take advantage of shared leave, notwithstanding the drawbacks, it’s unlikely take-up will be repeated for a second child or a third.” 

Some larger organisations are, however, already embracing the idea of enhancing and equalising maternity and paternity pay so treatment of new parents is equal regardless of gender. Aviva is often held up as the leader here. It offers all new parents up to 12 months’ leave, six of them fully paid. Since it brought in the policy in 2017 its male employees have taken an average of 22 weeks’ paternity leave, compared to just two weeks before its introduction, and more are working flexibly when they return. 

Indeed, Aon research reflects a general trend in the direction of aligning maternity and paternity leave. The study found almost two-thirds of companies (63 per cent) had received requests for SPL, with half either allowing the father or partner to also receive leave and pay on the same basis as maternity, or considering introducing this shortly. “Updating both maternity and paternity leave policies appears to be gathering momentum and this is one of the most common questions we are asked by clients as they consider both work-life balance policies and overall benchmarking,” says Jeff Fox, principal at Aon. 

“The market seems to be heading towards six months of full pay for maternity leave. There is also a groundswell of organisations enhancing their paternity leave and pay to align with maternity leave and we would expect this trend to continue.”

But Aviva and other firms leading the charge here tend to have deep pockets, and the strong incentive of competing for top talent, particularly among the younger ranks – for whom, as above, parental leave is increasingly a dealbreaker. “But not all organisations will be able to afford to equalise maternity and paternity leave and pay,” says McCartney. Smaller firms in particular will struggle.

A logistical nightmare?

And it’s not just financial issues hindering take-up – it’s logistics too. There’s no doubt sorting small periods of very flexible leave for different people, rather than a woman just disappearing for an extended time, is much more challenging, especially for small businesses. Which perhaps explains why even some larger organisations have gone for generously enhanced maternity and paternity leave, rather than enhancing SPL as the government’s scheme defines it.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s (HPE) HR director for UKI and MESA, Kim Field, who describes her company as “heading in the right direction” with “plenty of examples of SPL working successfully”, says making the logistics work requires “thinking creatively”. But she concedes that having a large workforce makes it easier to think laterally about how you deal with SPL requests and that it is much harder for smaller outfits.

Peyton agrees: “For smaller employers with less resources, these offerings are not going to be as possible. The professional services industry, for example, and the larger accountancy practices are well placed to offer such leave. Whereas smaller businesses operating in, for example, entertainment or catering will not be able to.” The logistics of SPL will also present more challenges in male-dominated professions, where typically employers aren’t used to having to grapple with the logistical and financial implications of many staff being off for childcare purposes. 

Another problem with SPL in its current format, say many, is that to give more leave to the father, it ‘takes’ from the mother. Under SPL couples can share up to 50 weeks’ leave between them. But if the mother just takes maternity leave, she can take up to 52 weeks herself. This ‘sharing’ of something that has previously been the maternal domain challenges some deeply held, entrenched cultural norms, both conscious and unconscious. “It could feel like a loss to the woman,” says Birkett. “That can be a barrier for fathers raising it for discussion because the norm is that any leave is the woman’s. The father then thinks ‘it’s her entitlement; if I raise it and say I want to take on more time, I’m taking it away from her’. It’s not about whether that is factual; it’s perceptions of the way they see these things working.” 

This could go a long way to explaining why research from DaddiLife and workingmums.co.uk found few parents even discuss SPL as an option. And such cultural norms almost certainly explain the stigma still attached to men taking leave. PowWowNow research shows nearly half of UK dads have experienced workplace discrimination after taking parental leave and, of 
these, one in four suffered verbal abuse or mockery. 

Fear of stigma is preventing men from asking to take time off, confirms Nic Hammarling, head of diversity at Pearn Kandola: “I constantly hear from men that they want the opportunity to take a more active role in caring for their children, but that many are intimidated by the idea of asking their employer for time off work. In a workplace environment, to be nurturing and caring isn’t often expected of men and, as such, many are wary of the backlash they may receive for asking for time away to be with their children.”

Which brings us to that knottiest of questions relating to SPL: should it just be ditched? Either because it prescribes far too many hurdles for even the most equality-minded and cash-rich organisations to overcome – meaning it would be better to leave businesses to devise their own bespoke ways of encouraging greater sharing of childcare? Or – the opposite argument – because something much stronger is needed to push organisations into really encouraging the equal division of domestic labour?

Birkett feels the cultural reasons for SPL encountering such a slow start point to why it should neither be scrapped nor replaced with stronger obligations. To ditch it now would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater (excuse the pun), she believes. 

“The take-up is not particularly high, but it’s a new policy, and it’s increasing. You wouldn’t expect it to be a huge amount higher than it is,” she says. “There are good reasons that it’s set up the way it is. Maternity leave in the UK is so long – there’s only so many things the government can potentially do. How do you get equality from a starting point where you are giving mothers 12 months and fathers two weeks? No government can legislate for two years per child.”

Birkett says she gets irritated when people call for the policy to be scrapped in favour of something more akin to much-lauded Scandinavian models. “They haven’t had systems they’ve had to undo or the same cultural barriers,” she points out. “We didn’t even have paternity leave in the UK until 2002. But in Scandinavia they were bringing in equal policies for parents in the 1970s. They also offer less time dedicated to mothers because it is not assumed that it’s the mother who provides the care.”

Equally, she believes there would be “uproar”, at this point in time, if maternity leave policy was drastically changed: “Can you imagine the media frenzy? That would be portrayed as ‘horrible companies’ stealing new born babes out of mothers’ arms.” 

Indeed, a recent landmark ruling found it is not discriminatory for employers to offer enhanced maternity pay while only offering statutory pay to staff taking SPL, with the Court of Appeal noting any action to equalise pay entitlements between mothers and other parents would eliminate “the special treatment afforded to a woman in connection with pregnancy or childbirth”. Many campaigners and commentators welcomed this decision.

When Birkett questions people on what should replace SPL, commonly they respond: ‘Give fathers specific enhanced leave only they can take,’ she reports. “But increasing paternity leave from two to four weeks, say, moves us further away from equality because you’re still reinforcing that the mother should be the primary carer,” she argues. The current SPL system doesn’t do that because it leaves the decision of how to split the leave up to the couple.

Overcoming barriers

Whether or not you agree with the policy in its current form, the consensus is, then, that its intention – of better gender equality – is good (even if it hasn’t achieved this). And there are in fact encouraging examples coming through of employers pragmatically overcoming the financial, logistical and cultural barriers.

Food manufacturer General Mills, for example, grappled long and hard with the financial implications of providing SPL, before deciding on its offer of 26 weeks of paid leave for all new parents, as well as maintaining pension contributions for the entirety of leave, paid or unpaid. When HR director Aaron Lamers initially looked at this, he felt there was a “big LinkedIn competition to see who could give away the most weeks”, which he didn’t want to get pulled into because it wouldn’t have made economic sense for the business. “We didn’t want a race,” he explains. “So instead we looked at what we could do to take some genuine differential unique actions to enhance equity over the long term. That was ensuring there was no gender bias in our policies.”

Similarly at Unicef UK, when it brought in its sector-leading family policies in January, its focus was on equalising provision rather than competing in a ‘race’ to offer the most weeks, says director of people Martyn Dicker. The charity now provides full pay for all new parents for six weeks, half pay for weeks seven to 30 and then statutory pay to week 39, with the remaining leave unpaid. 

Dicker suggests, when considering the costs involved, “weighing up the financial costs against the benefits a new policy would have on employee engagement, retention, wellbeing and, most importantly, the impact on the child”. “To me, these should remain at the heart of this discussion,” he says. 

Unicef has also made strong headway on overcoming the logistical challenge presented by SPL. “A key highlight of our process was to ensure we asked our staff to give reasonable notice of planned time off to enable business and people resource planning. As part of our policy, we ensure our people team works collaboratively with the individual and their teams to establish robust ways of working that facilitate the smooth running of business priorities,” says Dicker.

He highlights that such requests, if handled well, can provide positive stretch opportunities for other employees: “We found this was a fantastic way of nurturing internal talent in times of changes in resourcing within teams – we realised we could utilise existing internal talent, in other parts of the business, to facilitate flexible working arrangements while creating further career development opportunities for colleagues.” 

Similarly at HPE, by positioning SPL internally as a “fantastic opportunity” for the wider workforce to step up, the company has encouraged employees picking up the slack of a parent being off to see SPL as a career development experience. “We are working hard to create an environment and working culture where managers feel supported in being creative in how they support these requests, says Field. “I encourage my team to support managers to start SPL discussions and decisions from a place of ‘yes’. Then we can help managers plan out how the request can be supported with the least impact on business output.”

There is also much organisations can do to overcome cultural issues by communicating SPL well. “As a technology company in a male-dominated industry, we are having to do more to convince a larger proportion of our workforce of the benefits of SPL,” says Field. “In male-dominated industries there is a greater need for strong successful case studies of high-performing employees taking SPL to be highlighted so others can see it is acceptable and a positive experience. As employers we not only have to provide the correct policies to allow SPL to occur logistically, we also have to work hard to normalise the requests and practice.” 

Perhaps the best way to think about this first incarnation of SPL is, then, as a new policy that deserves time to find its feet – and as the first (wobbly) step on the road to equality. Unlike simply enhancing paternity leave, SPL treats parents equally and gives them the opportunity to choose how they carve leave up. The fact that so few couples seem keen to take this choice perhaps feeds the argument that, in the UK, most men and women are not ready to share leave equally, let alone let the father take most of it. “Having a situation where the male stays at home and looks after the child is a big societal change and we’re quite a long way from changing that. The best thing we can do in the interim is encourage fathers to share in the experience as much as possible,” says Lamers.

Though of course a devastating health and economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic does bring some silver linings – one of which speaks to the cultural piece around caring. If leveraged, the crisis could help challenge unhelpful norms, such as the idea that men aren’t as good at looking after children. As many couples are showing, parental responsibilities need to be shared equally to enable both to work – often remotely, often flexibly – and for all the family to thrive. 

For now, it’s perhaps about keeping the conversation going and, as Lamers says, encouraging men to take part in childcare as much as possible. 

In the words of Unicef’s Dicker: “We wanted to challenge our people, and by extension society, to shift their mindset in terms of traditional caregiving responsibilities. We were hoping to start a conversation, among everyone, especially across boardrooms and among HR professionals – and it did.”

“Taking family leave has been the biggest learning experience of my life”

Diageo offers six months’ fully paid family leave to all caregivers, and up to 52 weeks unpaid but with benefits. Ervin Trykowski, global scotch whisky ambassador, is five months into his paid six months. His wife runs her own business and so didn’t have access to a company maternity leave policy, which means Diageo’s offering has been transformational. 

“Some of my friends only had two weeks off work when they became a dad and it just isn’t enough,” he says. “The policy has been game changing for the way we’ve been able to live as a family, and I hope more companies give dads this magical opportunity.” 

He adds that this period has provided some of the “biggest learning experiences” of his life, and he feels sure he’ll return to work with boosted organisational skills, patience, compassion and the ability to keep calm under pressure.

Since April 2019, when the policy was introduced, and the end of January 2020, the number of men going on leave has doubled. Of those who took it, 27 per cent were off for at least 26 weeks. Previously, only 13 per cent of new dads took more than 14 days’ leave.

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