The Equal Parenting Conundrum

22/09/2017 14:28 BST | Updated 22/09/2017 14:28 BST
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Family having a walk outdoors in summer in park, Tokyo, Japan. Parents are throwing their little daughter in the air in a playful way.

Shared Parental Leave has been in the news again this week. With take-up very low, it is interesting to look at what is putting couples off.

Finances is the main one, particularly if maternity leave is enhanced but Shared Parental Leave is not or where dads earn more, although more and more women outearn their partners. The legislation is also very complex. But there are other deeper reasons to do with assumed social roles. The mother feels she is giving something up rather than sharing it, for instance. Another underlying assumption is that the dad's career matters more than the mum's and that taking a career break could damage his career. Dads are no doubt aware of what has happened to women. This perception is also the reason dads don't tend to work reduced hours, although undoubtedly more are doing so. There is also clearly added stigma in doing something that is not the norm.

But that norm is taking a huge toll on families - full timers feeling unhappy and overwhelmed in roles where they may be in almost constant demand; flexible workers finding themselves stuck in jobs where their experience and talent are wasted; couples pushed apart by very different experiences of the workplace and family life; and children stuck in the middle.

Growing numbers of men and women are choosing to work more flexibly, but it still tends to be women who are more likely to work less than five days a week, with all that that brings.

One such woman came back from maternity leave and initially worked four days condensed into three. However, her workload remained the same and her salary was reduced by more than a pro rata sum. She says she was made to feel that she should be grateful to get flexible working. However, she was soon told that the condensed pattern wasn't working and that she had to increase to four days. She was not allowed any homeworking, but was expected to pick up any extra work on her day off. She says it took 18 months for her workload [which was greater than other full-time workers] to be reduced. Due to being passed over for promotion, she is about to change jobs and move out of her industry into a full-time flexible role.

One of the main aims of Shared Parental Leave was to equalise the playing field a little so that, instead of mums and dads have completely different experiences after the births of their children and often feeling resentment towards each other because of that, they shared the time with their children. The hope was that that shared experience would set up the framework for a more equal parenting approach so that dads didn't feel left out and mums didn't feel overwhelmed and facing possible discrimination at work.

That equal parenting approach applies similarly to flexible working. If mums take the primary carer role, the likelihood is that they will need to work flexibly. Workingmums.co.uk's annual survey shows how that affects their career path and earnings potential. It's not just about the money. It's about feeling fulfilled in your work, able to use your experience and skills. The lack of quality flexible roles, advertised openly, is holding many mainly women back and discouraging many dads from asking for flexibility, particularly reduced hours. As with parental leave, they are well aware of the negative impact on their careers and earnings so many are stuck in all hours working. It's two different experiences of work, neither of which delivers an engaged workforce and neither of which is fit for the 21st century.

Work structures need to change so that all workers can progress and so that mums and dads are able to enjoy more equal parenting - and working - experiences.