Shared parental leave: why businesses need to do more to make it work

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Why is shared parental leave back in the headlines? Because it’s not working.

Shared parental leave was introduced in 2015 and over two years later the take up could be as low as 2%. The government wants more parents to take up shared parental leave and is spending £1.5 million on promoting it.

As part of its “Share the Joy” campaign, the government says that shared parental leave will give “parents more choice and flexibility to combine work with childcare responsibilities” and that employers will be able to “better recruit and retain talent”. The Business Minister Andrew Griffiths has said that: “Providing truly flexible employment options is a key part of the Industrial Strategy, the government’s long-term plan to build a Britain fit for the future by helping businesses create better, higher-paying jobs in every part of the UK.”

Based on the figures provided by the government, as few as 5,700 couples per year could be taking up shared parental leave out of an estimated 285,000 eligible couples.

“Employers need to consider whether encouraging shared parental leave will give them a stronger reputation in a highly competitive employment market.”

There has been a lot of discussion about whether pay is the reason that take up is so low.  

  • A mother eligible for statutory maternity pay receives six weeks’ pay at 90% of her weekly pay and then 33 weeks at £141 per week (or 90% of weekly pay if lower).

  • Parents eligible to receive statutory shared parental pay receive £141 per week (or 90% of weekly pay if lower) – the same as the last 33 weeks of statutory maternity pay – and so the only difference relates only to the first 6 weeks of leave.   

Although pay may be more influential if the mother will receive enhanced maternity pay but her partner will only receive statutory shared parental pay, there is no evidence of significant take up in shared parental leave where enhanced pay is offered.

This suggests that other societal factors are likely to be more important. For example, concerns about what colleagues (of all levels) might think and being perceived as lacking commitment to their job. In other cases mothers may not want to share maternity leave for a wide variety of reasons (including the practicalities of breastfeeding).

Is shared parental leave good for employers?

Shared parental leave aims to give parents more choice and flexibility in how they care for their child in the first year enabling both parents to retain a strong link with the labour market. It also seeks to allow the second parent – usually fathers – to play a greater caring role for their children.

It is an attempt to introduce a greater gender balance into that first year of childcare – in the hope that challenging some of these gender stereotypes will benefit parents of both genders and improve gender parity within the workplace.

Encouraging more parents to take up shared parental leave is one way of addressing the stubborn stereotypes about family responsibilities which continue to prevail.  

Businesses may also benefit from individual employees being absent for shorter periods and increased retention of employees. Employers need to consider whether encouraging shared parental leave (perhaps by having some form of enhanced shared parental leave payment) will give them a stronger reputation in a highly competitive employment market.

It may also help to close the gender pay gap (particularly for companies seeing a widening gap at the midpoint in the career pathway).

How can employers promote shared parental leave?

  • Tell employees about it (according to BEIS research apparently only 49% of eligible couples have heard of shared parental leave and only 8% claim to know a lot about it). It is just as important to be sharing information with expectant mothers as their partners.

  • Review what you pay for maternity leave and shared parental leave. Talk to employees who have not taken up shared parental leave to see whether pay has been a factor and consider reviewing your pay policies.   

  • Encourage senior stakeholders to lead the way and show that taking shared parental leave does not imply that an employee isn’t committed to their work in the same way that taking maternity leave doesn’t (Mark Zuckerberg took two months’ paternity leave following the birth of each of his children).

What about the wider impact?

Women’s workplace issues continue to dominate the public conversation, whether it is gender pay, dress codes or sexual harassment. Just recently the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a survey that found that 59% of employers think that a woman should have to disclose whether she is pregnant during the recruitment process and 46% think that it is reasonable to ask women if they have young children during the recruitment process.

There is no one solution to addressing these issues. In acknowledgement of this, two of my colleagues at Lewis Silkin (Lucy Lewis and Richard Miskella) are leading a programme called “A Lasting Change” which seeks to engage with various sectors to explore ways of achieving lasting change for women in the workplace.

Encouraging more parents to take up shared parental leave is one way of addressing the stubborn stereotypes about family responsibilities which continue to prevail.  

There are likely to be many parents who want to share parental leave and many who don’t. But in order to remain a competitive employer and improve gender equality within the workplace, the government are right to remind employers that parents should be made aware of the right to take shared parental leave and encouraged to think positively about it.  

 

About Catherine Hayes

Catherine Hayes, Lewis SIlkin

Catherine advises on all aspects of employment law from the start of the employment relationship to the end and everything in between. She is qualified as a solicitor in Ireland and England and Wales.

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