The government's plans to allow parents to 'mix and match' the care of their newborn child in a more egalitarian way seems like a great idea on paper and are totally in tune with society's focus on gender equality. However, in practice the plans are unlikely to make much difference for many working couples.
According to the plans, set out in the Children and Families Bill, parents will be able to share their combined parental leave between them, either by taking it in turns or taking time off together, up to a total of 52 weeks. It is intended that the changes will help women to return to work sooner, if they wish to do so, while providing fathers with an opportunity to spend more time with their newborn.
While a great idea in theory, there is considerable uncertainty about how much shared leave fathers will want to take, not to mention how much leave mothers will want to forego to allow them to do so. According to a survey conducted last year (by Netmums), only 17% of mothers thought their partner would be willing and able to take some of the shared leave over and above their statutory two weeks' paternity leave. While it is not always the case, the job of lead parent usually falls to mum and the job of breadwinner usually falls to dad and much as both may like to take time off together, this is just not financially practical for most families.
Employers are even more circumspect about what the plans to introduce a more gender-neutral, flexible approach to parental rights will bring. For some, the thought of more male workers approaching them to take up their rights to extended parental leave is a real cause for concern. Others may not be fully up to date with the Additional Paternity Leave Regulations 2010, which already allow fathers to take up to 26 weeks' additional paternity leave if the mother has returned to work and the child is over 20 weeks old.
The extra uncertainty that comes with both fathers and mothers making last minute decisions about whether and when they will be returning to work is bound to have some repercussions in the workplace. In particular, it will make it extremely difficult for employers to plan ahead to take on fixed term workers to cover for mum or dad's absence and this could lead to money being spent unnecessarily.
Another aspect of the draft legislation that is particularly welcome is the move to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees, not just parents and carers. This is a positive step forward and will undoubtedly encourage open dialogue in the workplace, while ensuring that employers will have to consider flexible working requests, even where there are no children involved.
As a first step, employers need to prepare by making sure their parental leave and flexible working policies are up to date. But they could also do much more. After all, any move to introduce more flexible working arrangements is an opportunity for employers to position themselves as progressive and attract talent.
By Paula Whelan, employment law partner at Shakespeares