Why new fathers are too scared to take paternity leave

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Uptake of shared parental leave among new fathers is low. What's holding men back from caring for their children?

I recently read a troubling statistic, suggesting that as few as one in 50 men are taking advantage of a Government scheme designed to make it easier for new fathers to take paternity leave. The scheme allows parents to share 50 weeks of leave, 37 of which are with pay, which at first sounds like a fantastic initiative. However, of the 285,000 couples eligible, only 2% are actually taking it up.

Troubling as this statistic is, I’m sorry to say that I don’t find it particularly surprising. The fact that men appear to be reluctant to take paternity leave is a significant, yet massively unrecognised, issue.

A common assumption, driven by societal norms and stereotypes, is that men aren’t interested in taking time off work following the birth of a child.

On a societal level, there is a widespread belief that women are biologically programmed to want to take time off to be with a child, that they are somehow automatically better at playing dressing up. And that they are less likely than men to want to bang their head against a wall when their three-year-old wants to rerun the same dialogue with their superhero figures for the twentieth time.

The truth of the matter is that these assumptions are simply incorrect.

Why is uptake of paternity leave so low?

In my work as a business psychologist, I constantly hear from men that they want the opportunity to take a more active role in caring for their children, but that many are intimidated by the idea of asking their employer for time off work.

In a workplace environment, to be nurturing and caring isn’t often expected of men and, as such, many are wary of the backlash they may receive for asking for time away to be with their children.

Another source of pressure is the extent to which flexible working policies are being pushed towards women. It’s fantastic that such progress has been made in recent years for women to take maternity leave without causing disruption to their careers.

The government must put more effort into providing support for men who wish to take leave, in the same way that it has been done for women.

However, this progress, which subtly reinforces the idea that taking care of a child is a mother’s role, is to the detriment of men who wish to spend time with their children.

Indeed, there is such a focus in organisations on encouraging women to take maternity leave that it’s actually quite common for men to be unsure of whether they are even entitled to paternity leave, let alone shared leave.  

What needs to be done?

The bottom line is that drastic change must take place if we are to address the problems with paternity leave. And the responsibility for ushering that change doesn’t lie solely with one party.

I would like to see the UK government consider a parental leave policy that looks at equal entitlement for both parents, similar to that of Sweden for example. It’s a Swedish legal requirement that each parent is entitled to three months of parental leave, with 80% of their salaries paid.

However, the caveat is that this time is non-transferable. In other words, you use it or you lose it.  They are also looking at introducing an additional 3 months of leave with could be shared or transferred.

Why is the UK policy on parental leave not working?

The crucial focus of this policy is that it creates an expectation that men and women will be equally involved in their child’s care and upbringing. The recent policy put in place by our own government is failing not only because it’s optional, but also because organisations are scared of what will happen if they encourage their male employees to take this option.

The (often unspoken) pressure to not take parental leave is at such level that men will commonly turn it down or take only a portion of what they are entitled to, even though they would prefer to seize it with both hands.

We must all take stock of the insecurities that are holding men back from being present, caring fathers.

This policy, whilst a step in the right direction, is nothing more than that. Of course, the change cannot occur overnight – if compulsory paternity leave was announced without warning, such a rapid change of pace would be received with uproar by the business community.

But still, the government must put more effort into providing support for men who wish to take leave, in the same way that it has been done for women.

Busting the myth that women are better child carers

In addition, we must see a myriad of changes taking place across society as a whole. We must see the myth that women are automatically better than men at looking after children than men debunked.

We also need to see organisations putting more effort into making sure that flexible working policies are accessible and that new fathers are aware of the rights they are entitled to. Furthermore, experts in the diversity and inclusion field must make sure that they aren’t providing consultation that benefits women to the detriment of men.

Finally, there is an urgent need for more men to act as role models to their colleagues, by showing that it is not only acceptable to take time off work in order to be fathers, but to be open about the benefits that they can currently feel shy of discussing with others.

To truly change, we must all take stock of the insecurities that are holding men back from being present, caring fathers. The more we think of childcare as a woman’s responsibility, the more entrenched we become and the harder it will be for men to grasp the opportunities that they are so desperately looking for.

About Nic Hammarling

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