THE BLOG

Sharing the Responsibility - Shared Parental Leave

12/01/2015 15:59 GMT | Updated 07/04/2015 10:59 BST

When I first read about shared parental leave at the start of 2014 I was intrigued. The policy means that parents of children born or adopted from 5 April 2015 can choose to share the first year of childcare. It is fantastic to see the government continuing to find ways to support the careers of women after the introduction of paternity leave in 2010.

As a mother, I know how difficult it can be to start a family and manage a career. I am a board member of a successful recruitment business, I have 20 direct reports as well as two children. When my son Ollie was born in 2009, the market had crashed and it was very difficult to take time off. In the end I took seven months maternity leave, but I was very much still on call, fulfilling my duties as a board member and continuing to manage the strategy and finances of my division.

It was a little easier when I had my daughter Martha three years ago, I was able to take nine months off, and step back a little more than I could before. Of course I would never expect our employees to be that engaged whilst on maternity leave, but if you're at board level it's not possible to take a real period of leave from your business for any reason, regardless of gender - its part and parcel of the role. For my family, shared parental leave would have been a blessing, and I think it is for women at a senior level that the scheme will have the most impact.

However most women are not at senior management level, which may explain why since paternity leave was introduced in 2010, uptake is only at 1%. The culture of the business is pivotal here; I suspect this would be a far easier sell in the public sector or creative industries than it would be in a corporate environment like recruitment. I wanted to get my colleagues take on shared parental leave.

Adam Rouse is a Consultant in our Derby office whose wife had their first baby in 2014. He took two weeks paternity leave.

"I feel it would have been helpful to have longer than a fortnight off. My wife coped really well, but I was very aware that she was at home learning how to be a parent on her own. Still, I wouldn't have asked to do shared parental leave, it wouldn't have been the right choice for us."

Hugh Almond is a Manager in our Manchester office, he doesn't have children and was cynical about the reality of the scheme.

"I think for many men it would be hard to imagine taking six month off to look after their baby, I think many would be very worried about the perception it would have at work. It's totally accepted and expected that a women takes time off after giving birth - in fact if a woman takes less than three months off after having a baby, she'd probably be judged more."

My fellow board member and director, Ray Wareing set up Sellick Partnership with Jo Sellick in 2002. He has two daughters aged 12 and 13.

"When my children were born, I had no time off, and to be honest I wouldn't have even contemplated it, let alone asked for it. A decade on, I almost think we're at a stage where it would be frowned upon to not have at least a week off when your kids are born. When my daughter was sick last week, I spent the morning working from home and looking after her. I think the expectation that Dad's work long hours now is changing - when you and your partner both have a career, it has to."

So perhaps the days of women bring primary care givers will soon be over, but it will be the biggest test of the modern workplace. Since the late 1970s when women started to return to work after having a family, the workplace has been forced to adapt to a larger and more senior female population. This has led to maternity leave, childcare vouchers, and a more flexible approach to working. When you consider where we've come from, the British office is unrecognisable from those of the 1950s.

Still, if women are prepared to take on the extra challenge of managing work whilst breastfeeding, I don't think a shift in business culture is totally unrealistic. If HR teams and management can provide the necessary support and we, as friends, colleagues and family stop assuming that women are taking responsibility for childcare and start to ask the question about shared parental leave, that's how it can become the norm.