The introduction of Shared Parental Leave (SPL) in April 2015 was a watershed moment in changing the culture around child care. It would allow men to take a greater share of parental responsibility, reverse the motherhood penalty and create a fairer and more gender balanced workplace; at least that is what was hoped.
But a report published by the Government’s Women and Equalities Committee called Fathers and the Workplace shows that the scheme has a long way to go. Uptake has been low - only around 2% - and the cultural shift that was hoped for has failed to materialise.
Cost and confusion - why has SPL failed?
The complexity of the government scheme and a general lack of awareness among families have been highlighted as some of the contributing reasons as to why SPL has struggled to take off, but cost has been seen as a significant factor.
'The message when SPL was introduced was about giving families a choice, allowing them to make decisions about how they are going to bring up their family,' says Dr Emma Banister of the Alliance Manchester Business School who, alongside Dr Ben Kerrane from Lancaster University Management School, has conducted research in partnership with Working Families and the Fatherhood Institute to help raise awareness about SPL and tackle some of the perceived barriers.
'But the legislation does not necessarily give families that choice because of all the financial barriers. There is also a sense that the scheme as it is doesn't send a strong enough signal that it’s expected that fathers should take time off work,’ says Banister, who highlights the discrepancies in pay that mean it is often more financially viable for mothers to take time off.
Under SPL parents are entitled to 39 weeks of statutory pay at £140.98 a week, which is the same as statutory maternity pay. The difference here is that statutory maternity pay for the first six weeks is potentially at the higher rate compared to statutory paternity pay, because it is worked out at 90% of the woman’s salary.
While the Fathers and the Workplace report acknowledges the need for reform, the recommendations still seem far from adequate. Instead of SPL, the committee explores the possibility of introducing a policy of 12 weeks paid paternity leave that does not impact the mother’s period of leave.
But this is still less than the statutory 33 weeks statutory paid leave available to mothers; hardly promoting an equal partnership.
Of course this is only a recommendation, but if the government seemingly can’t get it right, should it be down to companies to introduce their own individual policies?
Should employers lead the way?
There are examples of those that have.The real estate giant British Land ensures that all employees are paid the same rate of parental leave, Deloitte allows all employees to take 16 fully paid weeks off to care for a family member and in November 2017 the insurer Aviva rolled out a scheme offering all employees one year of leave, 26 weeks of which is at full basic pay.
Aviva’s Chief People Officer Sarah Morris was a key advocate of the scheme. ‘We never saw this as a cost benefit decision, we saw this as an investment in our workforce of the future and in our culture. It's an investment in our engagement,’ she says.
Of course, that doesn’t make it an easy decision.
As Morris points out, equal parental leave is not something that can be measured prospectively because it is impossible to tell exactly how many people will decide to take the leave and therefore impossible to accurately cost - something of a problem when making an investment case.
For smaller organisations, meanwhile, providing enhanced, longer periods of paid leave may just not be financially viable, if there’s no one to cover.
Besides, this is an issue that goes far beyond practicalities - attitudes also need to change.
The idea of the male breadwinner is still deeply ingrained. The 2017 Modern Families Index revealed that 44% of fathers had lied to their employer about family related responsibilities. Many still feel uncomfortable about mixing their role of parent and employee and while progress has been made, there is still a lot of work to do.
This is clearly not something that employers and businesses can change on their own, but without their involvement nothing will change.
More companies have to be prepared to experiment with implementing individual schemes and the benefits of adopting such schemes, of which there are many, need to be more widely publicised.
Legislation can only go so far and while we are waiting for the government reforms to take shape, businesses should take a more proactive stance.