On Easter Sunday, new Shared Parental Leave legislation finally came into force. 40 years after the 1975 Employment Protection Act first gave working mothers the right to maternity leave, and 12 after a mere two weeks of paternity leave was written into law, dads finally also have the right to more than a token amount of time off with their new baby. I find it staggering it has taken this long.
This new legislation should represent a major step forward for gender equality both in the work place and in society. For mothers, it means the option to settle back into work without having to deal with the emotional and logistical stress of childcare at the same time. For fathers, the right to be present for those wonderful (albeit exhausting) first few months and build a close bond with their child. In the future the burden of care is more likely to be shared and won’t just fall on the mother.
In the workplace, it will go a long way to removing any remaining prejudice – spoken or unspoken – against employing women of a ‘certain age’. Employers will also likely see women return to work sooner after having a child. In the long-term, I believe we will see an increase in the retention of female employees post having children, where currently there is a steep drop off. This will mean more women going on to take up senior, board-level positions, inspiring other women behind them. It feels like a big, fat crack in the glass ceiling and should help close the persistent gender pay gap.
However, on closer inspection you realise it’s more of a baby step forward. The Government predicts only a 2 – 6% take up, based on only 40% of dads currently using their two weeks of paternity leave. With the IPPR think tank reporting that the mother is now the breadwinner in 31% of couples with children, sharing childcare should already be the norm but the change is not happening quickly enough. More has to be done to encourage take up and to overcome the financial and cultural barriers.
With statutory pay for Shared Parental Leave at £139.58 per week, employers play a critical role in encouraging take up by offering enhanced pay (given dads still don’t get the six weeks at 90% of their pay as mums do), something we are already doing at Golin. In fact employers failing to do so could be open to discrimination cases in the future. Men, like women, worry their commitment to their career will be called into question or they will miss out on promotions or bonuses. So the same measures that have been brought into to protect women against this kind of discrimination now need to be put in place for men.
There also needs to be more communication from the government, employers and business organisations promoting the benefits of Dads taking more time off and showcasing parents who have successfully shared leave.
My daughter has just turned one. I hope that by the time she is old enough to have her own family, it will be not only completely normal for both parents to share parental leave but it will be positively promoted and encouraged. In fact I sincerely hope that will be the case a lot sooner - because the change can’t come fast enough.
Bibi Hilton is the managing director of PR consultancy Golin.