Dear Liz, ... I need advice about shared parental leave

I am soon to become a new dad. My wife and I have discussed taking shared parental leave. But it seems I would be alone in this. Why is this and what should I do?

Thank you for your question and for bringing dads into the parental debate. We need more people like you to raise their hands, ask the important questions and get more dads involved in the conversation.

As we’re all aware, the agency business is now very aware of the business need for, and benefits of, greater diversity and gender equality in the workplace. Quite rightly, great strides are being taken to recognise, champion and promote the female talent in our business.

How this will translate into numbers of females rising up the rungs will take time though and the picture is far more nuanced than the figures suggest.

The statistics show that while the numbers of men and women entering the business are almost equal, the drop-off in female talent occurs at the ‘head of’ management level. The core reason for this trend is that women have babies, take their maternity leave and upon return don’t necessarily accelerate up the rungs as fast as they would have had they not been on maternity leave - by choice or otherwise, or they don’t return at all.

So it’s all very well promoting equality in the workplace but it needs to be part of a holistic equality programme. Without balancing equality in the workforce with promoting equality in the home – specifically in terms of taking equal childcare responsibility and thus more take up of shared parental leave, how likely is it that these figures can and will improve?

What is shared parental leave and what is the take-up like?

In short, introduced by the Government in April 2015, shared parental leave allows parents to share 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of statutory shared parental pay after their child is born or placed for adoption. For more information, have a look at the Acas guidance for both employers and employees on shared parental leave and pay. There are also further information links below.

However, the take up of shared parental leave is incredibly low on a nationwide scale:

According to Government figures from February 2018, around 285,000 couples are eligible every year for shared parental leave, but take-up "could be as low as 2%".

If this is the case on a national level, I can assume the figure in adland is as low, if not possibly lower.

But why is this, you ask…

What are the reasons for the low take-up of shared parental leave?

There are of course a myriad of reasons for this. Limited by word count, and to centre the main thrust of the argument, these are the three core reasons that stand out to me:

From a biological, practical point of view, there is no denying that the women are the ones who have the babies, many of them choose to breast feed and need necessary time and provision to support this physical and emotional change in their lives. Some will want and/or need longer time and more support than others.

From an economic point of view – as the figures reveal, there is a gender pay gap. Men are paid more than women on a nationwide level - meaning that in hard financial terms it makes sense for the man to stay in work, while the woman takes the maternity leave. For example, recent report Published by Crowd DNA, entitled ‘How to Speak to Family 2018’ revealed a recent Swedish study that found for every month of leave taken by men in a baby’s first year, the woman’s long term salary was 6.7% higher.

From a cultural point of view, the accepted norm, the stereotype, the deeply ingrained belief is that it’s the woman who’s taken ownership of the childcare. With some even making the claim that women are less ambitious or career-focussed. And as such and again historically, the man is considered responsible for the breadwinning.

What can be done about this?

Taking these in turn:

First, if the mother wants to take sole maternity leave, this is her right. With support before, during and after. Shared parental leave isn’t necessarily everyone’s choice, regardless of other factors.

We must continue to work to ensure parity of pay for men and women at every level so that we can get to a point where finances don’t factor into this decision. Again, this is something the industry is now charting and improving, although there will inevitably be a long lag time.

Culturally will require both a change in perception, language and action. It is chicken and egg – the more men take up shared parental leave, the more it will become accepted and the perceptions and language will change. Coupled with this, and in the meantime, it is essential that as more women permeate into the senior roles in the workplace, that men are more readily accepted into the domestic sphere. Looking through recent comments on Mumsnet, and other chat groups it is evident that dads are feeling it’s hard to attend mother and baby groups, can be viewed with suspicion by the medical authorities, are a source of novelty gossip in the playground, are awkward to invite for a play date and are sometimes rescued by the mums who “feel sorry for them.” Society seems stuck in the very stereotypes it wants to break. This is further endorsed by the language – sometimes used by women themselves or others, saying “how lucky they are that their husbands do more than their share of the chores.”

While the solutions above are big picture and longer term, there are more specific things that agencies can do now to promote awareness and acceptance of shared parental leave. If we are serious about our dads we need to review our paternity policies as statutory provision does not support our commitment to our dads. Namely, agencies should be asking themselves:

  • How well are you communicating paternity and shared parental leave in your parental policies?
  • How easily understood is this option of shared parental leave for our parents?
  • Does the paternity and shared parental leave go far enough to support our dads?
  • How generous might we be with our dads and could we offer them similar leave rights as those we give our mums?

Essentially, agencies need to make their paternity and maternity, shared parental leave and flexible working policies easily accessible for everyone to see. These policies contain important decision-making information for all parents and people considering becoming a parent as they start to assess the next unknown chapter of their lives. 

And, if they think their policies need a bit of a refresh, agencies could run some focus groups with a cross section of people to assess the needs of everyone. You don’t yet need to be a parent to have a view on this important life stage moment. Including non-parents ensures that they know their friends have appropriate provision and that they too know what is available to them as and when they may need it. 

What are your next steps?

Shared parental leave is still relatively new, little used and complex, but don’t be put off. We need the trailblazers to show us all the way. And you trailblazers will have more of an effect than you think.

Talk to your HR team, discuss their approach to this, and find out what your agency’s policies are.

In outlining the benefits of shared parental leave, Business Minister Andrew Griffiths said, “Shared parental leave means dads don’t have to miss out on their baby's first step, word or giggle. Employers can reap the benefits too. We know that flexibility in work is proven to create happier, more loyal and more productive workforces."

I couldn’t agree more.

Good luck in your next stage and keep us posted as to how it goes.

For information on being a working family, check out the Working Families website. For all your questions on shared parental leave, see GOV.UK. For seminars and initiatives to support employees see the Employees Matter website. To join the general chat, Mumsnet is the place to be.


Last updated 21 January 2022