Why Proper Paid Paternity Leave Matters to Working Women, As Well as 'Cappuccino Dads'

If men and women share parenting, so that they are equally likely to take extended parental leave, and need to accommodate childcare arrangements, then the departure of mothers on maternity leave stops being a sexist problem.

After a decade as an employment lawyer, I find it shocking and depressing that sex discrimination still takes up so much of my caseload. It's been unlawful my whole lifetime, but that hasn't fixed the problem. I have seen too many high-flying women whose careers are de-railed by maternity-related discrimination. The specifics are many and various: passed over for promotion at child-bearing age, or upon the first pregnancy; a lesser role or redundancy on return; perceived as less committed to their careers after parenthood; paid less than men for doing the same (or better) work... The list - and the glass ceiling with it - just seems to go on and on.

I want to see real change, and I believe that the answer lies in more gender equal parenting. Until now, it has really only been women who take long periods of maternity leave away from the office. I believe this is one of the key underlying factors which creates the many inequalities for women in the workplace, and so proper paid paternity leave is a way to treat the cause and not just the symptoms of prejudice faced by women in the workplace.

If men and women share parenting, so that they are equally likely to take extended parental leave, and need to accommodate childcare arrangements, then the departure of mothers on maternity leave stops being a sexist problem. But there needs to be a real shift at work for that to happen. Because it is not enough just to allow fathers to take additional paternity leave, it needs to be paid at levels which encourage dads to take it up in droves, until is a normal reality.

This doesn't mean that men should be paid more than women - the rates should be the same, but the current £138.18 per week is simply too low for this to happen. Until it is increased, I do not anticipate that fathers will start to take a more equal share of the leave available. In many families, the decision will be that the highest earner goes to work, and the other stays at home. Since another example of our unequal workplaces is that most often, the higher earner will be the father, this leads to mothers taking the lion's share of childcare; and the cycle is perpetuated.

Scandinavia is leading by example. In Sweden, there are so many dads as primary child-carers that they often outnumber women at playgroups and coffee mornings, and are nicknamed "Latte Pappas".

Crucially, to encourage Swedish dads to take shared parental leave, parents receive 480 days' leave, including 390 at around 80% of their salary (capped at c£80 a day). 60 days are reserved for each parent and the remaining 360 shared as the couple choose. This means that either parent can take leave for around 13 months at about £2,600pm, with a 'gender equality bonus' to encourage both parents to take time off together, paid from the third month of the father's leave (about an extra £150pm each x2 = c£300 a month).

This is not paid for by employers, but by the state (and taxes are higher than here). But interestingly, in Sweden, shared parental leave was first introduced in 1974, to stimulate economic growth. Not simply by encouraging population growth, but also by protecting women's career progression. With less women lost to "the mummy track" glass ceiling, professional women could make good on the investment in their education and training in delivering financial returns to the economy.

In Sweden, they realised that financial incentive was needed for fathers to start taking leave in real numbers. Because here's the point - it has worked. When Sweden first introduced a 'daddy month' - a block of time specifically for fathers - in 1995, it worked instantly, with the share of dads who took at least one month off increasing from 9 to 47%. Now, almost 90% take some paternity leave, and the average father takes 3 months off per child. With more equal gender parenting, Sweden has seen a corresponding increase in women's income and self-reported levels of happiness since fathers started to take on more equal parenting. Norway has a similar system, including 10 weeks of 'use-it-or-lose-it' leave just for dads - 90% of Norwegian fathers take at least 12 weeks off. Contrast this to the UK, where 25% of new fathers take no paternity leave at all, and only one in ten take longer than their 2 weeks of statutory leave.

So I say put me out of a job, and let's get some Cappuccino Dads of our own over here, by paying dads (as well as mums) properly for shared parental leave. Only when parents of both genders are likely to take extended parenting leave from work will we really start to see equality in the workplace.

Parts of the article have been adapted from a blog by Samantha originally published on Mumsnet