Shared Parental Leave (SPL) was introduced in April 2015. When asked about it, the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg explained, ‘more and more fathers want to play a hands-on role with their young children, but too many feel that they can’t.’ The SPL scheme was a way to give more ‘choice’ to families.
Let’s just take a moment to understand what SPL really is. Since April 2015, dads have had a legal right to ask their employers if they can have an extended period of leave from work. People are eligible to get SPL and Statutory Shared Parental Pay (ShPP) if they’re having a baby or adopting a child. If eligible, parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay between them. The other key thing about the schemes is that parents can take leave in blocks separated by periods of work or take it all in one go.
One of the key intentions of SPL is to remedy the imbalance between a mother and father, specifically with regards to their career progression after having a baby, alongside work towards a reduction in the motherhood penalty. But with take-up as low as 2%, we need to assess whether it’s just a case of people not knowing about the benefits or whether there is a fundamental reason people aren’t taking up the scheme.
As part of this assessment, we asked some parents (both mums and dads) about their honest thoughts around the scheme. Interestingly, the views were very much mixed.
Kate Tunstall for example, a mum blogger and freelance writer, from The Less-Refined Mind said, ‘I feel strongly that dads should be spending more time with the family in the early days following birth: overwhelm is common for both parents, and mutual support is crucial. My husband is self-employed and therefore had minimal time away from work, which I found difficult. Dads often have a hard time bonding with their newborns and more time spent with them can only be beneficial. Choice is key.’
Certainly, when the scheme was introduced, I think we all had high hopes (like Kate above) that with the chance of ‘greater choice’, parents would be instantly able to see the benefits and jump at the chance to spend more quality time with the kids. Likewise, I think we all assumed that with the introduction of the scheme any form of stigma around stay at home dads would be removed. Sadly, I think we all realised pretty quickly that, whilst this was a new and exciting scheme, the public perception around it and also the take up would very much be ‘baby steps’.
And speaking of ‘baby steps’, we are specifically referring to that of father’s uptake on this scheme, rather than employers offering shared parental leave. Because for businesses, it’s probably an easier decision. Yes, there may be some costs involved and some requirement to cover people’s jobs whilst they are away, but the impact on their employer brand is greatly beneficial. The impact on the father, however, is a very different matter and one that will almost certainly take time to shift the dial on.
So why hasn’t SPL taken off in the hearts and minds of UK dads? Well salary is certainly a key reason. Because men still tend to be the higher-earning partner, they face a financial penalty for being off work. Aside from financials however, there seem to be some ingrained cultural issues to fight against. Specifically, with regards to the stigma of men taking time away from their careers to spend time with their children, not to mention the lack of role models for men who are actually doing this.
Paul Sweeney, who works in technology marketing in Oxford, and is a fatherhood blogger at Bleary Eye Dad, confided, ‘the truth was that I didn’t want to be the primary carer for my child, so I never took up shared parental leave.’ He explained that there was some consideration to finances given he was the main breadwinner in his household. He said that there was probably also a fear for the damage he might do to his career, with a few months away from the coalface. And this was even with a very supportive employer in a relatively progressive industry. The thing that really concerned him though, was something far deeper than money or career progression. He went on to say, ‘if I’m honest with myself, there was also some evolutionary or societal muscle-memory, a masculine need to meet the expectations of a father as a provider for my newly expanded family. Caring for a baby can also be hard. Like, really hard. Not the sort of intellectually stimulating hard that’s good for you. But a slog of changing nappies, cradling a crying baby to sleep and trying to get the clip on the pram to snap close as little hips thrust forward defiantly. In contrast, work is an oasis of stimulating adult conversation.’
We also spoke to Tobias Beal, a senior manager of forensic services at PwC about shared parental leave and asked him about whether he thinks it will become the norm for dads moving forward. He said, ‘I’ll be honest, that was part of my reason for doing it: so that in time it becomes totally normal for dads to take more time off when they have a baby.’ He told us that he wasn’t nervous about telling anyone, not least because he worked for a firm who have promoted it and were 1 of the 10 who published their parental leave policies publicly a few months back. He said, ‘It was a bit tricky with my client on my current project, but I decided to be open and got some great support as a result of that honesty.’ And when we asked him about the stigma associated with the scheme he responded, ‘sadly I do think there is still a stigma. I know I might not have been so lucky had I worked for another firm, so count myself very fortunate. To have time off to help my wife, but more importantly to make a proper bond with my daughter is simply time that you can’t get back. If people’s employers offer SPL, I can’t see why others wouldn’t take it.’
A mixed bag for sure in terms of opinions around the scheme. We believe that, whilst the take up of SPL might not be as high as we would have otherwise wanted it to be, it has definitely helped with more discussion in the media and the public about the role that fathers play today. Not only this, but there is now more of a general acceptance that fathers want to be involved in their kids’ lives from day dot. For us, this can only be beneficial.
However, we have a long way to go in improving SPL take-up. To do this we need to encourage more employers to take it seriously whilst understanding that they can’t all be as supportive as PwC for example and communicate the benefits of the scheme to staff. We’ll also need to reassure mothers of the benefits of getting back into the workplace and prove to them that they can have both a career and a child and why it’s in their interests to share their leave. But most importantly we need to remove this deep ingrained stigma associated with fathers putting their careers on pause to care for their children and instil upon them the benefits of taking time out of the careers to be more involved in their children’s life at an early stage.