Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee today released its report from the Fathers and the Workplace inquiry which highlights the difficulties dads have in balancing their careers and childcare responsibilities. Dr Emma Banister from Alliance Manchester Business School and Dr Ben Kerrane from Lancaster University Management School give us their thoughts on the report’s recommendations.

The committee emphasizes the importance of parents sharing care and the positive impact this could have on efforts to reduce the gender pay gap, a key government objective.

It recommends that in the 2018 review of Shared Parental Leave (SPL), the government should consider the costs and benefits of an additional 12 weeks paid paternity leave as an alternative to SPL. Crucially this leave should be paid at 90 percent of salary for the first four weeks (capped for higher earners), and at statutory levels for the remaining eight weeks. The report also recommends that fathers should receive day-one rights (i.e. rather than earning their eligibility for paternity rights and pay through time spent with the employer) and that SPL should be extended to the self-employed.

The committee’s findings and recommendations echo some of our concerns emerging from our work focused on fathers’ experiences of SPL, since its introduction in April 2015.

The need for a better rewarded more ambitious shared leave scheme

The government is currently raising awareness of SPL via its #sharethejoy campaign acknowledging a disappointing uptake of around 2%. However, this focus on awareness misses the point that a better rewarded SPL scheme, alongside the availability of standalone leave for both parents, could work well.

Take Aviva’s recent introduction of equal maternity/paternity leave. Under this scheme any Aviva employee who is a new parent, regardless of their gender identity, is entitled to six months off on full pay; this leave can be taken at any time within the child’s first year.

Netflix offers a whopping 52 weeks at full pay, again for birth and adoptive parents of any gender.

Apart from their generosity, what’s interesting about these two schemes is that they have been initiated as distinct and standalone from the government’s SPL policy. While they reflect these employers’ international nature and the different leave policies and payments available in their operational countries, they also suggest shortcomings in the SPL offering.

Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) vs. Shared Parental Leave Pay (SHPP)

Under SPL only 37 of the possible 50 weeks of leave that parents can divide between themselves is paid through statutory Shared Parental Pay (ShPP). However, in contrast, women on maternity leave receive 90% of their usual wage for the first six weeks and then Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) for the 33 weeks that follow. A further key point of difference is that many employers enhance SMP, providing top-ups for weeks, sometimes months, to women after birth.

The Government’s own technical guidance on SPL reassures employers, however, that there is no expectation that they match maternity and SPL pay, which “may or may not” be the same.

Of course, many employers who have generous maternity occupation schemes do match-fund their SPL offerings, meaning either parent on SPL is entitled to the equivalent pay that a mother would receive on maternity leave.

Accenture is one such employer, offering 32 weeks of full pay for all eligible new parents, regardless of whether they are on SPL or maternity leave; the company estimate that around 10% of eligible fathers in the organisation have taken SPL.

Where next for SPL?

SPL has received a lot of criticism. It has been said that men don’t want to take leave. We don’t see it as time to ditch SPL altogether; a properly supported scheme consisting of nine months to be divvied up between parents alongside equal periods of designated leave for each parent could be the way forward.

The inquiry reveals that a raft of employers do not support or promote SPL and do not (or possibly in some cases cannot) enhance ShPP.

Also, what of those fathers who are not employees? The committee recommends ironing out these disparities to include the self-employed; the next stage of Tracy Brabin’s bill may bring this possibility closer.

We particularly support the recommendation to include the self-employed within SPL provision, and it leads us to pose this question: whose responsibility is it to support families in the workplace?

While the government and employers need to work more effectively in partnership, if there is an agreement of societal benefits of fathers’ increased involvement in the first year, surely it is the government’s responsibility to develop a policy that provides the best chance of this happening?

The SPL policy as it stands risks encouraging a cultural belief that fathers are secondary carers; beholden to mothers’ decisions to ‘curtail’ maternity leave in order to get a look in. However would a longer period of paternity leave in addition to a reversion to a long maternity leave, with no potential for families to carve up shared leave, risk further positioning men on leave as against the norm? Does this make it more likely that mothers and fathers will take time off together when we know that time off alone is key to fathers’ continued involvement?

Despite overall SPL take up being low, in our study a handful of dads took very significant periods of leave alone with their child – e.g. four months and upwards. While their feedback was mainly positive, a key obstacle was a mother-centred, sometimes unwelcoming-to-dads, parental culture; providing a challenge for fathers to navigate. Our dads were optimistic that this would change with time as the ‘quiet revolution’ takes shape.

It’s difficult to know how parents would take leave if the committee’s recommendations are put in place, but extending paternity leave in this way may or may not impact the existing parenting culture. As this is capped at 12 weeks (and fathers may take less depending on whether employers enhance the statutory rate), fathers may still feel unwelcome, like intruders in mothers’ space, and as above they may be less likely to take solo leave. The committee’s recommendations imply that the choice to share leave more equally, or even for fathers in a few cases to take the lion’s share, is one that should not be open to families.

Our research reveals the potential benefits of fathers taking leave extend beyond the home (e.g. improved relationships, communication and time to bond with their child) to the workplace itself. Fathers report a more nuanced, understanding and empathic approach towards their colleagues, and what’s more, they feel more committed towards their employers. Companies such as Aviva, Netflix and Accenture recognize this business case for a well-rewarded leave scheme, they promote their policies (whether SPL or not) because they want to support parents in the workplace and demonstrate that they value them.

The potential outcomes of greater numbers of dads taking SPL go beyond the benefits for individual families, informing a movement towards workplaces that are more generally sensitive to employees’ caring responsibilities, and lives outside work. Essentially SPL is part of an important move towards recognizing employees as ‘people who have lives’ regardless of their gender identity, parental status and responsibilities; and at particular transitional points, we can all benefit from workplace support and particular structures in place. For employers, the rewards go beyond the all-important recruitment and retention, rather the creation of a mutually respectful, honest and transparent relationship with their staff.

Further information:

To find out more about families experiences of Shared Parental Leave, see here for our video casebook developed in partnership with Working Families and the Fatherhood Institute:

See here for the Women and Equalities report on fathers in the workplace: