One year ago yesterday, the Government introduced the concept of shared parental leave (“SPL”) with an estimated a take up of between 2 – 8% in the first year.   SPL gives parents the option of sharing statutory leave and pay between the two of them, rather than the traditional method of the mother being allocated the bulk of the time off.  Put very simply, SPL allows a couple to split the 50 week allowance (as a woman must take a compulsory 2 weeks out following birth) in whichever manner best suits their needs and an employer is expected to accommodate this within reason.  It was designed to enable new dads to take a greater share of childcare and new mums to return to their careers earlier if they wanted to.

Sadly, new research published this week by My Family Care and the Women’s Business Council shows that just 1% of fathers have chosen to opt for SPL over the traditional two weeks of Paternity Leave, with half saying that they feel taking more time off would be perceived negatively at work.  In fact, the main reasons given for the lack of take up were that SPL would be “financially unworkable”, “a lack of awareness” and “women (55%) refusing to share their maternity leave”.

Financially Unworkable

With statutory pay currently set at a maximum of £139.58 a week, many of the employees surveyed said their decision to share leave would depend largely on affordability and whether their employer paid more than the statutory minimum. 

Depending on each parent’s salary, it may not be possible for one parent to take the drop in pay to share leave.  This ties into my recent blog on the gender pay gap – on average men earn more and there’s often going to be a greater impact if they take leave than if the baby’s mother takes the entirety of maternity leave.

In Sweden and Norway, fathers are paid between 80% and 100% of their salary whilst taking time out following the birth of a child.  I doubt we will ever reach this level in the UK but would hope that employers realise the value of a diverse workforce and would consider offering enhanced pay in line with what they offer employees taking maternity leave (if indeed they offer enhanced maternity pay at all).  Either that or the Government needs to increase statutory pay to make SPL a more affordable option.

Lack of Awareness

When SPL was first announced, employers reacted with some concern.  Small employers in particular expressed concerns about the complexity of the new arrangements.  Now, a year down the line, employers should certainly be encouraged to be more proactive in making staff aware that shared leave is an option.  If employees don’t even know about it, how can they possibly be expected to take it?

Refusal to Share

At present men can only take SPL if their partner loses it from her own leave allocation.  Time spent with your new baby is fleeting; I can understand why not many new mothers would want to do this.  Further, why would a new father want to take leave away from his partner?  Perhaps if men and women were given the same entitlement to parental leave (at a rate that means families can actually take it), or if men were given a right to some independent parental leave that is not shared with their partners, there might be a greater uptake; successful international models have certainly shown this to be the case.

There is hope though.  Almost two-thirds of men with young children who were surveyed said that they would be likely to take SPL were they to have more children.  Ben Black, the founder of My Family Care, which helps businesses introduce “family friendly” ways of working said:

“It is still very early days for Shared Parental Leave.  While take up is low, its introduction was a fantastic step forward when it comes to equality in the workplace; a policy that proves that women are no longer expected to be the main childcare provider, while men are no longer expected to be the main breadwinner.

The key thing for businesses is to help their employees combine work and family, by providing them with choices and enabling them to carry on with their careers while having a family.”

It’s early days for SPL and the law, as it stands currently, is proving restrictive.  Of the 200 employers asked, however, the majority said that they enhanced both maternity and paternity pay and had a desire to be consistent with their culture of fairness and equality, and to increase retention and engagement of both men and women.  Hopefully, as more fathers take SPL, the idea of sharing leave in this way will become a more acceptable “norm” and the paltry 1% will increase. 

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has said they will evaluate the policy by 2018.  Personally, I hope there is a more positive response (from both employers and employees) before then.

Reminder: What is Shared Parental Leave?

Traditionally, it was only an option for a mother to take paid time off work to look after a new born baby.  SPL allows most couples who are in paid work and bringing up a child together to share leave following the birth or adoption of their child.

Parents can take leave in their child’s first year at different times, or double up by taking leave at the same time.

The rights apply to parents in work, including those who are adopting, same-sex couples, co-habiting couples, and couples bringing up a child together even if the baby is from a previous relationship.