The Blog

Are We Ready to Share Care?

Can Shared Parental Leave make a difference? Many are sceptical. They argue that examples from other European countries show that unless you specifically reserve leave for dads on a 'use it or lose it' basis, as they do in Iceland, they are unlikely to take it.

It's been six months since mums and dads have been able to share the year after their baby is born so it's a good time to look at how things have progressed.

A survey out today from My Family Care found just 2% of employers have experienced significant take-up, although 38 per cent say they have received interest. At a recent meeting of HR managers, many said they believed it was "a slow burner".

Why is it important, though? Surely it is the many years after a baby is born that matter more? Well, patterns of who does what with regards to childcare tend to get established from very early on and once established those patterns are hard to break. Many people I know have had very egalitarian approaches to life before they have children. Once the mum has been off with the baby that often flips and they find themselves living out the traditional roles they swore they never would. The primary carer role is set.

That is then linked to all sorts of career issues that women often face afterwards. Inequality at home and inequality in the workplace go hand in hand, which may be fine if you have signed up for that, but many don't consciously choose to face discrimination or be pushed out of their jobs because, for instance, they have taken a few months off for maternity leave. The statistics speak for themselves. According to a recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission one in 10 women has been edged out of work or treated so poorly on their return from maternity leave that they had to leave their jobs.

Can Shared Parental Leave make a difference? Many are sceptical. They argue that examples from other European countries show that unless you specifically reserve leave for dads on a 'use it or lose it' basis, as they do in Iceland, they are unlikely to take it. They also say that it is not really about sharing leave if the decision is all down to the mum who decides whether she wants to allow her partner to take time off. Moreover, while some organisations are enhancing SPL, many don't and, if dads earn more than mums, it simply makes no financial sense to have the dad take time out.

At the recent Tory party conference George Osborne threw another potential complication into an already complex piece of legislation. He said that from 2018 grandparents might be able to share leave. This may be a boon to single parents, to whom Shared Parental Leave does not apply, but it may also mean men are less likely to take it. We're still very short on the detail. Will mums, for instance, be able to choose to share their leave either with dads or with grandparents or will grandparents could just be added to the mix. Administration-wise, the latter is easier to administer, but also more likely to result in dads opting out.

A poll on found enthusiasm for the idea with mums feeling grandparents should be entitled to time off given all the help they provided with childcare. Others believed it would be difficult to administer and that companies should not have to offer leave to grandparents as well as parents.

What the SPL legislation does do, though, is open up a debate about dads' role in childcare.

Employers who see the business benefits in supporting it - for retaining women and getting greater diversity at the top of their organisations as well as addressing dads', particularly younger dads', desire to be more involved in their children's lives - are taking action. Where they had a lot of data on female employees because of recruitment and retention issues, they are now seeking to find out more about what their male employees think and want. They are also promoting senior male leaders who take the leave and work flexibly to share childcare duties more equally.

Politically, the legislation opens a window to push for a more proactive approach, as the Women's Equality Party is doing. It wants to see "a fully equal system of parental leave" which guarantees both parents six weeks away from work on 90% of pay, with an additional 10 months of leave at statutory pay to be shared between the parents.

Will moves to promote the existing legislation succeed in galvanising support for change? Interestingly, the meeting of HR managers heard from one company who said that there was a division between mums and dads who said they might take it with mums going for an average of four weeks' leave for dads while dads favoured significantly longer - on average 12 weeks. Are mums really interested in sharing more than a fraction of their leave or is it just that the benefits are not apparent to them? At a time when people are working increasingly long hours, the option of some time off is a difficult one to forego in the absence of anything concrete in return, such as less discrimination against women.

What is true is that if only a few parents take it up there will be less noticeable change in the workplace. However, social and cultural change takes time. Chris Parke is co-founder of Talking Talent, a coaching company focused on women and working parents. He has worked on issues related to female career progression for over 10 years and says: "This is the most complex change programme I have worked on in my career. It takes commitment and resources to tackle such a huge societal and behavioural issue."

We're just at the beginning.