Employers must take responsibility for ending the stigma men who take shared parental leave (SPL) face, female business leaders said at an event late last week.
Sharing childcare responsibilities offers women more opportunity to take control of their career progression, speakers at the Women Lawyers and Mothers organisation’s inaugural event said – but they added that male stereotypes in the workplace discouraged men from taking up family-friendly options.
SPL was introduced in 2015 and essentially enables parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave, 37 of which are paid.
The keynote speaker at the Bird & Bird LLP co-hosted event, Sandie Dennis, career coach and CEO of Confidence to Return, said: “The transition back into work is easier when phased in and the partner can take responsibility for that. Being out of the office for eight instead of 12 months helps career progression because women feel they can pick up where they left off.”
She said that SPL could help more women into leadership positions. Dennis added, however: “Men face unconscious bias. SPL can make men feel as though they seem uncommitted to their career. There’s a stigma attached to them taking time out.”
The government revealed in February that SPL take-up may have been as low as 2 per cent of eligible parents. Dennis suggested the low levels were partly caused by lack of awareness of the scheme, although she added a number of new fathers would not qualify.
She said employers should take responsibility for staying ahead of the curve instead of waiting for legislative change. The most important factor was workplace culture, Dennis told attendees, adding that senior leaders must show employees they are committed to change, rather than just ticking boxes.
“What is most important is the ethos of the company,” Dennis said. “If men see examples of colleagues who have taken SPL, it makes a huge difference. In some industries, it’s breaking the norm, and it takes someone being a trailblazer to say ‘it’s my right,’”
HR also had a vital role to play, the speaker suggested. Communicating information on both the scheme itself and what the company can offer, as well as publicising other businesses’ success stories, can dismantle stigma. Other options included running workshops and employee surveys.
Speaking at the same event, Aseia Rafique – equality, diversity and inclusion manager for the Solicitors Regulation Authority – suggested encouraging employees to enter in their public calendar when they have a parents evening or sports day they need to attend.
Transparency is the key to success, added Donna Davis, director of the More Than Mum Network.
“So many working parents often feel nervous to ask for an early finish or time off for family duties, and when they do leave the office early, they feel they have to sneak out so as not to raise suspicions and have colleagues think they are receiving preferential treatment,” said Davis. “So transparency around why colleagues are working particular shift patterns means nobody is second guessing and everyone can manage expectations.
“Instead of this being a private appointment, it shows that everyone has other obligations away from work and this is not something we need to hide from one another.”
Jessica Chivers, CEO of The Talent Keeper Specialists, agreed more male “poster boys” were needed to show other men taking SPL is to be respected and even encouraged.
“There’s no replacement for powerful storytelling,” she said. “When a senior man says ‘I am never in the office before 10’, for example, it sets an incredible example. When that happens, men can think: ‘OK, so I can bring my whole self to work.’ We need to talk more.”
Jane O’Gorman, coach at Ten2Two recruitment, told People Management employers needed to offer flexible working and be transparent when recruiting.
“What HR could do, and what would make a huge difference, is look at every individual role and ask: ‘How can that role be defined? Could it be worked flexibly?’ Instead of thinking about full time or part time, they need to start thinking differently,” she said.