Shared Parental Leave (or SPL) was introduced by the UK government in April 2015 and was set to dramatically change the legal landscape so that caring for children became a joint responsibility rather than one exclusively assigned to mothers.
A framework that allowed women to return to the workplace more quickly, without compromising either her child’s early care or her career path, was meant to be a giant step towards co-parenting and equality in the workplace.
And yet very few men are actually exercising this right, and the status quo has remained pretty much untouched. In 2016, a year after the policy was introduced, it was thought that only 1% of fathers entered into a SPL working arrangement. In fact, research conducted by a Family Care provider across 200 organisations revealed that in 40% of these organisations, not a single male employee had taken SPL at all. And yet a 2011 study reported that 82% of the 1,000 employed fathers interviewed said they would like to spend more time with their family. So why aren’t men making the most of the options open to them? Elizabeth Maxwell, Solicitor at Thomson Snell & Passmore, experts in employment law, explores the situation further.
SPL was brought in to allow parents to divide their leave between one another, subject to certain conditions being met. Statistics tend to focus on the low up take of fathers (who make up the vast majority of ‘partners’), although it’s not just fathers who make the grade for SPL.
To qualify for SPL, individuals must:
- share responsibility for the child with their partner, be that married, civil, straight or same sexed, adopter or joint adopter;
- have been employed by the same employer for 26 weeks by the end of the 15th week before the due date;
- must stay with the same employer while taking SPL
The partner must:
- have been working for at least 26 weeks
- have earned £390 in at least 13 of the 66 weeks
This all looks good in theory, but the reality isn’t quite so clear cut.
Poor in practice
Broadly speaking, there are three main reasons that prevent SPL becoming the success it was earmarked to be.
When it comes to getting ready for a baby there’s already a mountain of paper work to get through – hospital notes, organising maternity pay and so on. Unfortunately, parents need to be prepared to undertake even more admin if they decide to go down the SPL route. This includes each employer reviewing the other parent’s forms, alongside their own policy. Forms then need to be shared with each employer, along with the government. There’s no central system to manage the process so all this coordination can be enough to put off individuals applying in the first place
Most employers do not offer enhanced shared parental pay meaning fathers are stuck at the statutory rate (currently £140.98) while mothers on maternity pay may benefit from their employer’s more generous package (if there’s one in place). This disparity was recently challenged in the employment tribunal where a father succeeded in his claim for sex discrimination. This followed his company’s failure to pay shared parental leave at the same enhanced rate as maternity pay offered to women. In Ali v Capita Customer Management Ltd, the denial of full pay Mr Ali was entitled to amounted to less favourable treatment and the reason for this was his gender.
This inconsistency in pay is commonplace across all industries. Statistics show that while 70% of new mothers on maternity leave received full pay between 1 and 38 weeks, just 9% of fathers received anything longer than two weeks at full pay.
It seems likely that there will be similar claims of this kind running through the tribunal in due course, if companies fail to change this position.
And now for the real problem – an engrained cultural attitude that seems impossible to shift.
According to studies, there remains a real stigma attached to men taking time off to look after children. Just look at the statistics, only 15% of fathers work part time compared with 59% of mothers. Women with dependent children are more likely to work school terms only (42%), compared with men with dependent children (24%).
A recent report by the conciliatory service ACAS found that while there’s been a real emphasis on employers encouraging women to feel comfortable taking maternity leave without the fear of losing their status in the workplace, this cannot be said for men in the same situation.
The report found that employers were failing to make male employees aware of their entitlements, including paternity pay, paternity leave, and additional flexible working options. And even if men are aware, it’s unlikely that they feel comfortable making these requests, as the survey revealed that male employees are often perceived as less ambitious, when they request flexible hours.
Companies that support both sets of parents in balancing work and childcare responsibilities is a pro-active way of tackling gender equality in the workplace and addressing the gender pay gap.
And yet even the most progressive organisations are failing in their responsibilities to promote this.
If your company’s SPL programme is not aligned with its maternity or paternity package, then you should speak to HR about why that is. Companies run a real risk if they continue to make SPL a financially unattractive option; so it’s perfectly reasonable to challenge this position if it’s one your employer adopts.
Changing a culture however is not just the responsibility of the company. Every person involved must do their bit. In the age of increasing family friendly rights and the notion of shared responsibility, any idea that child care is exclusively in the mother’s domain is outdated. Children benefit from having both parents involved in their development, and the opportunities (admittedly with some refinement required) are evolving to support this so it’s important that they are taken.
To find out more about Parental Choice’s benefits for all working parents, please contact us on 020 8979 6453 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.