A baby born today can expect to work 50 or even 60 years (lucky them). You’d think, in the scheme of things, that if they decided to have children of their own at some point, it wouldn’t affect their career much. After all, what’s a few months or even a year off in the face of half a century? And if that baby happens to be someone’s son, then you’d be quite right.
Unless something changes, though, the same can’t be said of daughters. Women still face a motherhood penalty – parenthood disadvantages women’s careers but not men’s. One of the reasons for this is that mothers generally do take much more time away from work, before and after the birth, than fathers. Even women who don’t have or intend to have children can be affected, by the assumption that this might change.
Shared parental leave is designed to remedy this imbalance. Couples, the logic goes, will naturally split the leave according to their personal circumstances, rather than just assuming mums should stay at home and dads go back to work.
The only problem is that it isn’t working: only 1% of fathers actually take up shared parental leave. ‘You can lead a horse to water,’ the expression goes, ‘but you can’t make it drink.’ We say that when we try to help someone out, but they just refuse to see what’s good for them. The implied next step is not to think of another solution to your equine hydration problem, but merely to shrug and walk away.
But that’s not really good enough, is it? It’s led some to assert we need to give fathers a little bit of a prod.
Andrew Cullwick from First4lawyers, for instance, says we should emulate the Swedes and increase paternal leave to 4 weeks at 100% of salary. The UK’s statutory leave for fathers is currently two weeks at 80%. ‘This would give families the peace of mind that they can enjoy their time off with their newborn with no financial impact. In relation to paternity leave, 2 weeks at 80% paid is not enough. A small increase to 4 weeks at 100% paid would help new dads not only support the mothers but also give them the time needed to build a lasting bond with their child,’ says Cullwick, pointing to his company's research into comparative levels of parental leave across Europe.
It’s true that enforcing equal, generous leave would start to change those cultural expectations that a man has to get back to work and leave all that baby-stuff to the womenfolk. But not everyone will approve.
It comes down to how far it is justified for a government to attempt to manipulate culture to achieve an objective. If we wanted to use laws, regulations and propaganda to eliminate a culture of violence, that would be justified. But if we wanted to use the same to eliminate religious belief, that would not. At least the current arrangement allows couples to decide matters for themselves.
For businesses, it’s probably an easier decision. There may be costs involved, but the stance you take on issues like this directly affects your ‘employer brand’, the way current and potential workers view you. Generous benefits and a tangible commitment to fairness and equality go a long way. And what father would really complain that his firm won’t let him back to work, until he’s spent a month with his new child at full pay?
The greater danger is leaving yourself open to criticism for being just a little too involved in your employees’ lives. Remember Facebook and Apple’s creepy offer to freeze their employees’ eggs for them? If in doubt, ask people what they want. It’s been known to work, from time to time.