Last week, Jo Swinson, MP and the Minister for Employment Relations, confirmed that the Government’s plans for shared parental leave had come through consultation and were being included in the Children and Families Bill which will come into law in 2015. The aim of the legislation is to overhaul the current “Edwardian” (Nick Clegg Nov. 2013) system and the assumption that childcare is a female responsibility. This has been hailed as revolutionary and is aimed at creating a more equal playing field for women who are trying to combine careers and motherhood by allowing them to share the early care leave of their babies with their partner.
I’m female, I have two children and I work flexibly within Human Resources for a business that actively campaigns and supports working parents, particularly women, in achieving their career potential whilst being active and involved parents. Given that, you would assume this legislation would be exactly the kind of thing that I would want to see coming from this Government but it’s actually quite the reverse.
Parents have been able to share Additional Parental Leave for the last two years. However a TUC survey found that the take up rate has been less than 1% with the main reason being that families cannot afford the drop in income that this incurs. Why would shared maternity leave be any different? There is also the perception by fathers that they will be judged as less committed and their careers may suffer. They probably have a valid concern as it’s been happening to women forever.
We all know, although we never talk about it, that there are myriad employers out there, particularly small businesses, who would think twice about hiring a woman in her prime childbearing years because of the impact a term of maternity leave and ongoing family commitments might have. Allowing women to share this leave with their partners won’t change that view, in fact it might make these employers think twice about hiring men in that age group too.
The business world is not enamored with the changes. Alexander Ehmann for the Institute of Directors (IOD) stated “unfortunately, today’s announcements heap yet more burdens on struggling employers when the government should be freeing them to create jobs and wealth.” From a Human Resources point of view not only could it become far more difficult to manage workforce planning but there are the obvious issues regarding actually managing the process. Who will monitor the leave taken and payments made; surely there are data protection issues? This could be a logistical nightmare for HR professionals. ACAS have been tasked with developing operating frameworks but so far there is no indication on how any of this will work practically.
The goal of changing the view that family care is a woman’s job is an admirable one but the problem is far more fundamental than being able to share leave in the first year of a child’s life. What happens when a father / mother wants to be part of their child’s life when he / she is 4, 8 or 14? That child will need parenting for the next 18 years and it doesn’t get any easier as they get older and even when those children leave home the burden of caring for elderly parents can take their place. Families need to be able to share the load all the way through and that is about challenging culture as much as new legislation. It’s also about the provision of affordable care solutions so that people really can choose rather than be forced to stay at home because they can’t afford to go to work.
So what is the answer? I believe it’s flexible (or agile) working and not just for women returning from maternity leave but for all. Generation X and Y are already choosing a more balanced way of life and the worm is starting to turn.
There is some amazing work happening that shows that being flexible can improve a business but it needs to go so much further. The Agile Future Forum ‘AFF’ (www.agilefutureforum.co.uk) is a group of employers that are actively embracing agile working and seeing “significant and tangible economic benefits” (Ian Greenaway, MD, MTM Products Ltd 2013) to their businesses. The group includes organisations such as Ernst and Young and Ford Motor Company as well as a number of smaller businesses. They are proof that it does work if you manage it properly.
It is only when all employers do not view employees, men or women, with family commitments as less committed but just another string to the diverse workforce bow that true equality can be achieved.
Mr Clegg, if your Government is going to take a stand on this issue then make it count. The AFF was set up at your behest and it was a fantastic idea, don’t undermine it with ill considered legislation that will be of no value to all but a miniscule percentage of the population and a major headache for employers. This will not support workplace equality but just create another barrier.