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Shared Parental Leave - Can We Overcome Stereotypes?

05/04/2016 17:20 | Updated 05 April 2016

This April marks the first anniversary of the Government's legislation to introduce shared parental leave, allowing parents to split statutory maternity leave and pay. We'll need to wait until the formal review in 2018 before we have official nationwide data evaluating its impact, but already, we've witnessed some positive outcomes.

Most importantly the policy has generated far-reaching conversations about gender equality and the need to support women's return to the workforce. It also rightly highlights the importance of including men in these debates, as no meaningful drive for gender equality can be achieved without being truly inclusive.

The legislation places this issue firmly in the spotlight, highlighting the many benefits of shared parental responsibilities. As well as allowing parents more choice to determine how they manage this important period, the policy has been designed to ease some of the hurdles new mothers face when returning to the workplace. Now women have the option of returning earlier if they wish and an opportunity to balance the demands of motherhood with a dynamic career. This flexibility will also help tackle longer term issues such as the gender pay gap and career progression by enabling women to continue their careers without too much absence from the workplace.

In my opinion for policies such as this to truly succeed, we need wider industry endorsement and for employers to actively promote this. This is where individual businesses play a crucial role. Firstly, companies need to offer a supportive workplace for returning parents, with comprehensive development opportunities designed to further skills and build confidence. Secondly, a company's culture needs to be open to not just promoting but actively encouraging more fathers to use their shared parental leave rights.

The policy's main criticism so far is that the number of new fathers signing up is low, with many blaming cultural stereotypes for their hesitation. Employers need to address this by making role models more visible and openly communicating the available options around shared parental leave. Other factors are equally important, such as enhancing benefits for new parents; having formal support networks - such as Bank of America Merrill Lynch's 700-strong Parents and Caregivers employee network where members openly discuss personal experiences and share best practice hints and tips - or offering flexible working. This approach is ultimately good for parents and by extension, good for business, creating a more fulfilling workplace and helping with talent retention.

On a practical level, financial considerations often affect parents' ability to share leave, but it still holds true that the policy's introduction is a significant step in the right direction. Since inception it has ignited public debate and hundreds of column inches are devoted to the pros and cons of the new policy. It takes times for new ideas and measures to become embedded in the culture and to become the norm, but most importantly, this policy is providing working parents with options, and if these lead to better gender equality, then surely that can only be a positive result.

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