Where does shared parental leave stand in the fight for workplace equality? Justin Govier, employment partner at IBB Solicitors explains
Considering the expected impact that shared parental leave (SPL), a surprisingly small proportion of men have exercised their option to use it in the year following the scheme’s introduction on 5 April 2015.
According to a survey (undertaken by My Family Care and the Women’s Business Council), a mere 1 per cent of men opted into the scheme. While these results are slightly misleading as they take into account all men within the organisations surveyed (not just those who have recently become fathers and are therefore eligible to take SPL), take-up has still been lower than anticipated.
What is shared parental leave?
Sweden was the first country to introduce SPL – as far back as 1974, with the aim of furthering workplace equality; acknowledging that men are no longer necessarily the main breadwinner in the family; and freeing women from the expectation that they should automatically give up their careers to prioritise childcare.
The UK introduced SPL in December 2014, making it available to parents expecting their new arrival on or after the week of 5 April 2015. SPL gives parents the option to share 50 weeks’ leave between them largely as they wish, although mothers are still required to take two weeks’ compulsory maternity leave. Previously, the mother was automatically allocated 52 weeks’ maternity leave.
Following compulsory maternity leave, the mother and her partner (whether male or female) are entitled to split the remaining 50 weeks’ leave between them as they see fit. It can be consecutive or concurrent (or both) and pay is offered at the same statutory rates as in weeks 7 to 39 of maternity leave (although employers sometimes enhance these rates).
Why has take-up been less than expected?
Many factors may be relevant in answering this question, for example:
Lack of awareness of the existence of SPL;
Unwillingness of men to leave the workplace;
Unwillingness of women to share their leave;
Lack of affordability/enhanced shared parental pay;
Employers blocking access to the scheme; and
Societal views on gender roles.
The most probable answer is all of the above, with some or others being dominant in different situations, for different people. There was a big splash when SPL first hit the headlines, but there may have been a feeling that it applied to other people. Long established gender roles are changing and it may be some time before mums and dads feel entirely comfortable with taking and sharing leave.
Undoubtedly, some employers could do more to champion the new regime. Implementing a clear SPL policy, open-door HR and fully articulating the positives SPL affords new parents may result in rising take-up. Employers could treat SPL as an innovation and actively encourage its use to become an employer of choice – all the more important in the competitive employment market today. Many large firms have already implemented this, but anecdotally, far fewer SMEs appear to have done so. It is likely that since SPL’s introduction, employers have simply not had enough requests for SPL to form a view of the success or otherwise of their policies, and need more time to form a view.
I would argue societal views are the key. The law can help to challenge and change entrenched views, empowering individuals and bringing real equality to the workplace. But legislation only ensures it is possible, and it is only with the positive engagement of employees, employers and society as a whole that SPL will begin to flourish. Only time will tell whether the UK is ready to make that jump.
Justin Govier is an employment partner at IBB Solicitors.