Let’s turn our minds back to 2015, when employment lawyers and HR professionals were busying themselves by poring over the five sets of regulations that established the new shared parental leave regime. We prepared clear, straightforward policies for employees. We designed simple forms, and carefully uploaded them to the organisation intranet. We agonised about whether, and how much, to enhance statutory pay and some of us then loudly trumpeted our progressive new shared parental pay policies that would enable fathers and other partners to take a fuller role in caring for their children.
Nothing changed for most employees, with mothers taking around a year off as maternity leave and fathers back at work after 2 weeks (or less) of paternity leave. That’s the story from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) figures published following a freedom of information request in September 2017. The figures suggest that between 1% and 6% of eligible employees are taking shared parental leave. For the more sensitive among us, it’s felt like a cruel rejection of all that hard work on training, policies and those lovely forms.
The release of those figures has left commentators scrambling to explain why fathers and other partners are apparently shunning the chance to stay at home with their new arrivals. So far, discussion has focused on two explanations. The first is that men just don’t want to stay home any more than a couple of weeks, because looking after babies is difficult, tiring work. In the words of one father: “babyland isn’t always that blissful”. The second is men’s supposed worries about career advancement. Women have always suffered an unfair penalty when taking maternity leave and a new father might fear those disadvantages, coupled with the implication that he had voluntarily chosen to absent himself. Those fears were partially realised when a friend’s husband notified his manager of his plans to take extended leave and received a lukewarm reception: “Well, I suppose we can’t stop you from taking it…”.
No doubt these are factors for some men. Men wanting to take shared parental leave must also convince their partners to give up some maternity leave, which may not be easy. I think, though, that the main reason lots more people aren’t taking it is much simpler: money. Unless an employer chooses to be more generous, shared parental leave is paid at the lower rate of £138.18 a week and 90% of the employee’s weekly earnings. An employee on £25,000 a year therefore suffers an over 70% drop in gross pay. For someone on £50,000 a year, the drop is 86%. It is also more costly for employers to enhance shared parental leave to full pay than to do the same for maternity pay, due to the higher levels of maternity pay reclaimable from HMRC.
Family income often feels squeezed when a baby arrives; new one-off expenses combine with a reduction in maternal income due to maternity leave and/or a forthcoming increase in childcare costs. It is no surprise that fathers and families might feel reluctant to place a continuing full income behind the enormous but less tangible benefits of more time at home with a new baby.
The sad but inevitable importance of money is borne out by the international picture; in Sweden, paternity leave is paid at more than three times the UK rate and take-up amongst men is 90%, although other factors like leave earmarked solely for men doubtless play a role. In Germany, take-up of parental leave soared after the introduction of a two-month bonus for fathers taking leave.
I am currently in between two periods of shared parental leave following the birth of our son, and count myself very lucky that my firm provides a period of fully-paid shared parental leave. Having that time off was immeasurably valuable, and I hope I would have taken time off even if it had not been paid. Deep down, though, I know it would have been easier to just go back to work “because we need the money” and enjoy the weekend fruits of parenthood without sharing the weekday hard labour. If we really want to lead a change in attitudes to childcare in the UK, we need to put our money where our mouth is.
Raoul Parekh is a senior associate at GQ Employment Law