Don’t blame mothers for low rate of parental leave

Labour Party

It was hardly accurate when yesterday, some of the media suggested that the reason rates of paternity leave were so low in the UK was because women were reluctant to give up their right to it. In fact the statistics revealed that just over half of women (55%) said they didn’t wish to share their leave. The explanation of the statistics is, obviously, far more complex.

The policy of shared parental leave was introduced in April 2015, allowing new parents to share statutory leave and pay following the birth of their child. However, on the first anniversary of the introduction of the policy research, conducted by the Women’s and Business Council and My Family Care, revealed uptake to be significantly lower than expected with just 1% of men using the opportunity to share leave.

One theory as to why men have not used the opportunity is because the policy has been poorly designed. The paternity specialist Tom Beardshaw suggested one explanation was that both parents need an allocation of leave that is dedicated to them and paid at a rate which makes it rational for them to do so. Beardshaw suggests that if both men and women are given “at least three months of properly paid leave each…shared leave makes far more sense, because both parents are engaged in caring responsibilities. That’s what we are still waiting for in the UK.”

I suspect we are some way off of achieving this in the near future, but still there are things we could do to improve the uptake, like improving statutory maternity leave pay. In fact the Members of the European Parliament had worked towards introducing new legislation which would reflect his but following years of negotiation with e Commission it was withdrawn under the REFIT programme.

In the UK, Government figures predicted uptake would be low when it was first introduced. The research suggested that around 285,000 working fathers would be eligible to share leave but it anticipated just 2%-8% would do so. By comparison, in other parts of Europe such as Sweden and Norway approximately nine in 10 fathers take leave, and crucially between 80% and 100% of their earnings are replaced while they are on leave.

In addition cultural attitudes still need to shift significantly which is a major barrier preventing better uptake. The perception that mothers ought to stay at home with their young offspring still rings true for many families in the UK. While many employers are reported to have embraced the model and adopted more flexible work policies they state that the requests just aren’t coming in. The point of the introduction of shared parental leave is that it should allow families to choose what is best for them and it should help mothers to return to work more easily.

In addition to cultural attitudes research suggested that some men were concerned that their career progression may be affected if they took an extended period of leave, while others reported that taking such leave was perceived negatively at work. Less than half (40%) of individuals said shared parental leave was encouraged by their employer, despite more than half of businesses stating they offered enhanced pay (in line with what was offered to those taking maternity leave).

Progressive countries like Sweden, which was the first country in the world to introduce a paid parental leave allowance with no regard to gender, some 40 years ago can be used as a model. Parallels can be drawn with the UK, albeit with a 40 year gap.

When launched in Sweden the scheme involved paying 90% of salary for 180 days per child and allowed parents to divide the leave as they wished. But in its first year only 0.5% of men took parental leave.

Today things are very different some 24.8% of men share leave in Sweden. One clear factor which has improved the rates is that there has been an increase in paid leave from 180-480 days. Financial viability clearly makes a significant difference.

In addition, the introduction of policies such as the so called ‘daddy-month’ was introduced in 1995. Families received an extra month to add to their allowance, if each parent acquired at least one month of leave. By 2002 the policy was expanded to two months instead of one.

Germany has similarly good rates of uptake at 20%. And in other European countries, such as Belgium and Portugal certain aspects of parental leave are reserved exclusively for the father.

Clearly the explanation for the poor uptake of this infant policy is complicated but women can’t be blamed for the low rates of parental leave, it’s understandable that many women don’t wish to give up their leave, but the factors relating to low uptake are far more complicated. It’s incumbent upon the government to build on the parental leave policy and improve rates of uptake.