When the government introduced Shared Parental Leave in 2015, it was a victory in the fight against gender inequality. The burden women face in raising children is well-known, yet ignored by many - 98% of us in fact. Last week, the Department for Business found that take up of shared parental leave was only at 2%. That’s hundreds of thousands of people passing on the opportunity for paid leave.
There’s a huge amount of confusion around shared parental leave, possibly since half of the general public are unaware it exists, but also thanks to the archaic norm that sees women still responsible for the majority of childcare. It’s what perpetuates the gender pay gap, and has mothers working a double-shift - both working to earn money and fulfilling the majority of unpaid domestic and childcare duties.
The outdated view that women are the sole bearers of childcare responsibilities is no longer relevant, and 53% of the public agree that it should be shared equally between parents. How is it that even after the government have caught up and implemented shared parental leave, we’re still not taking advantage of it? According to a review by the Department for Business, it’s not just a lack of awareness but also cultural barriers and potential financial penalties.
Forget the resentment caused by having to bear the burden of childcare, educate your partner on their own child and then go back to work while continuing to fulfill the role of main carer because your child has bonded to you more, if your partner will get teased at work, it’s a no-brainer.
It sounds ridiculous to assume men wouldn’t take care of their own child just because of archaic stigma around a man’s role in the family, so is it more than that? Perhaps fears of a slowdown in career progression? Women wouldn’t know anything about that. The most likely reluctance is due to financial pressures, which shared parental leave should take care of since men and women are paid the same amount as if the mother took maternity leave. There are minor differences regarding the first 6 weeks of maternity pay, which you can find out more about here, but by and large they are paid the same.
In fact, there are plenty of families that can testify to better financial opportunities thanks to shared parental leave. For Tom Snelgrove, who split the leave equally with his wife Nikki to look after their son Elliot, he was financially better off when his employer offered generous pay over his SPL period. He said:
‘It has been a wonderful career break to focus on family and be a formative part of Elliot's early development. It also allowed us much more financial freedom; my wife went back to work once her maternity pay tailed off and I was able to take the time instead at a much better rate of remuneration.’
In fact, Tom’s story is an example of the reducing stigma around fathers taking paternity leave, he continued:
‘I was able to relay my experiences to my community at work, and several others have taken SPL since, including senior leadership.’
It’s an embracing of a healthy work life balance that more companies need to adopt, with other parents reporting that discrimination around taking time off for childcare depends on the industry you work in. Satyakam Patel, who took three months of with his first daughter and six months with his second, said:
‘In spite of our universally positive experience, I still know of someone working in banking who feels they can't even take two weeks paternity leave because it will affect their career. Hopefully workplace attitudes will catch up with the realities of shared parenting in the 21st century.’
His friend’s concerns aren’t unfounded; however, they are only what women have had to deal with for decades. In fact, when viewing the family finances altogether, splitting parental leave has allowed many women to combat the discriminatory ideals some employers have about women not being committed to their careers if they have children. Just this week it was revealed that employers are ‘living in the dark ages’ when it comes to recruiting pregnant women and new mothers.
In enabling more women to go back to work early, the stereotype that women are a burden to their workplace because they take time off for children can diminish. While it’s the employer’s responsibility to embrace a better work life balance and stop viewing childcare responsibilities as a burden, if fathers want something practical to do right now - while attitudes are still yet to change- shared parental leave is an option.
Rachel Eyre, a breast cancer research scientist, is one mother whose career benefited from the shared parental leave she took with her second child. She said:
‘Science is very competitive, and after my first maternity leave, I felt I’d been left behind. I lost confidence, and it took me a long time to feel comfortable holding my own at work again. With a shorter break, I didn’t feel so out of the loop. I’ve been able to get back and get on with the work again much more quickly.’
Leila Reyburn is another model for success; she was able to go back to work earlier than she would have had she taken full maternity leave, and take a promotion. She stated:
‘The greatest benefit for me was career-wise, not missing the opportunity that arose to go up a level at work. It was also nice to know I didn’t have to go back to work and put Pearl into nursery all at the same time, because that can be quite a stressful period.’
It’s the relief of knowing your child is with your partner that parents often refer to as a benefit of shared parental leave. Not having to deal with the stress of nurseries and outside childcare is helpful, but more importantly, it allows both parents to bond with the child equally. Alex Fletcher, father of two, who took two months with his daughter Matilda, agrees:
‘Prior to shared parental leave, she would cry every time Amy left the house. Now she enjoys spending time with both of us. I got to experience my daughter growing up and to share the time with her that I would otherwise have missed.’
It’s not just the child who benefits from a better relationship with their father, which is conducive to greater emotional wellbeing later in life, it’s the family as a whole. Satyakam’s wife, Catherine, can testify to this:
‘The depth of understanding Satyakam has about the girls; their personalities, their needs and wants, would not have developed, had he not taken SPL. With a more equal split of parenting, I imagine there is less space for guilt or resentment, compared to when one person takes on much more of the parenting responsibility.’
Elizabeth Learmonth, a solicitor, agrees:
‘The greatest benefit from doing SPL will be the relationship between my husband and daughter, and us truly approaching her care as an equal team,
‘My pet peeve is people describing a father as baby-sitting his child. You don’t baby-sit your own kid. I’m hoping we change that mentality.’
Changing that mentality is a goal the new government initiative to increase awareness of SPL hopes to achieve. It’s imperative we shun antiquated ideals about the family structure, not just for women hoping to close the gender pay gap, but for children who deserve both parents to be equally present in their life. The family unit is changing, and shared parental leave is just the first step to achieve that.
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