Will shared parental leave solve the dads drought?
On a weekday my local park is overflowing with mothers pushing prams. Yet dads seem to be an endangered species. Things could be so different. As a British dad taking parental leave in Sweden recently noted: “At the free-of-charge, drop-in play group in Malmö that is my morning refuge, the pappas often outnumber the mammas.”
In Sweden, some 90 percent of fathers take flexible parental leave. In the UK we are sadly scratching around in the single digits, a legacy of “a highly gendered, inflexible approach to parental leave rights”, according to the government.
The costs of this for women here are well known: the disproportionate burden of bringing up kids underpins much of the gender pay gap. And it must surely drive what are alarming levels of maternity discrimination as our friends at Working Families have recently documented.
So we welcome the new shared parental leave rights being introduced in the Children and Families Bill, to be rolled out in 2015. But the incentives in place for fathers are so poor that even the government estimates that only 2 to 8 per cent of dads are likely to take this leave.
Under the proposed changes, mothers will keep the right to 52 weeks of maternity leave and 39 weeks of pay. They can end that leave and pay early to share it with the father (or the mother’s partner (same sex or otherwise), spouse, or co-adopter) however they see fit. So they could take time off together, or do alternating months of leave if both of their employers agree. This is an improvement on the current system, where dads/partners can only use such leave in a single period once the mother has returned to work.
But even on the government’s own figures this won’t drive a Scandinavian-style shift to shared parenting. So what will?
- A reserved period of leave for fathers/partners: International evidence shows that fathers are most likely to take leave when it is offered on a “use it or lose it basis” – unfortunately shared leave entitlements are still most likely to be taken by mums. The government had planned to introduce this but now claims it is unaffordable.
- Day one rights for all dads/partners: Fathers only get the right to take time off after 26 weeks of service (before the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth). This excludes a lot of people, especially those on short term contracts who are typically low paid. Why not make this a right from day one as mothers effectively enjoy? Not until 2018 according Whitehall, once universal credit beds in…
- A decent rate of parental pay: At £135.43 per week, the current rate of parental pay is well below the national minimum wage ((£216.65 for a 35 hour week). This will hurt take-up. The DWP’s 2009/10 survey of parental leave concludes that: “The majority of fathers who did not take up any paternity leave or who did not take their full entitlement cited being unable to afford this as the main reason”. The government has even conceded that “the highest take-up rates are apparent in countries that have a high rate of income replacement”.
Without these changes, this government’s commitment to austerity will bury its commitment to becoming “the most family friendly government in the world”.
But other governments facing hard times are finding a way. Iceland – itself no stranger to dealing with the mess of a reckless finance sector – has just announced an extension of its parental leave system, offering five months leave each for mothers and fathers and then 2 months to be shared between them, all at 80 per cent of income. Currently 84 per cent of dads take leave and that number will only increase.
Employers can also play their part. After all most workers in Britain don’t just rely on minimum rates of pay for parental leave, they also benefit from occupational schemes tied to collective bargaining. And I’m happy to report that women are more likely to take longer maternity leave and get more maternity pay if they are in a workplace with a trade union presence. So unions will need to step up bargaining with employers to strengthen what will be fairly minimal shared parental leave entitlements (and yes, that’s another excellent reason to join a union if you aren’t a member already).
But ultimately we need to make a noise to strengthen this Bill because the benefits of doing so are too good to ignore. Back to Sweden, a mother’s future earnings increased by on average 7 per cent over a four year period for every month of leave the father takes. Most dads in the UK struggle to take more than two weeks of leave at the moment.
It might also help to tackle the appalling levels of discrimination facing women when they return to work from maternity leave – one in seven of them find that their job has gone. But would employers told such regressive attitudes to parental leave if there were at least as many men pushing prams around my local park as women?
I’ve just started covering for Sally Brett while she is on maternity leave, doing the TUC’s work on parental leave (among many other things), whilst juggling the joy, sleeplessness and nappies of my own six month old daughter. So what better topic to do my first blog on.