Shared Parental Leave was introduced in the UK in 2015 to enable eligible birth and adoptive parents to share time off work after their child is born or placed with them, subject to various requirements. The government introduced this option to help balance the participation of men and women in family and working life.
If time off work to care for a child is something that both men and women do in equal measure, then in theory, this should help reduce pregnancy/maternity and sex discrimination in the workplace, narrow the gender pay gap and reduce equal pay issues. These are excellent aims but the reality is quite different. An estimated 1-2% of those eligible have taken up Shared Parental Leave and it transpires that the current regime is a barrier to progress. It is a convoluted process with strict eligibility and notification requirements, not accessible for employers or employees and not affordable for most working families – and therefore not attractive.
The system needs to be simplified and then promoted widely so that new parents are aware of their rights but nothing short of scrapping it and starting again would achieve what is required. If we are to really share parental leave between both parents, and reap the massive benefits to society as a whole, including the workplace, we need to start by enhancing paternity and maternity leave and pay equally for men and women. This will need support from the government so that it does not put start-ups and small organisations out of business. The policy also needs to be extended to the self-employed (who make up approximately 15% of our workforce), to improve the take up and better support the make-up of modern families.
Perhaps a ‘leave quota’ such as that in Sweden where new parents are entitled to a chunk of leave but lose a portion unless the father takes it, is also needed.
Yes, this is asking for more money from an already cash-strapped administration but if we don’t, what will be the cost? Shared Parental Leave will continue to merely pay lip service to a system that pushes women into taking the lion’s share of leave and subsequent child care duties, because that is the only financially viable option for their family. Men – it’s time to stand up for your rights. More equal parental leave with pay. We’re way past burning our bras and it has only got us so far, we need you now to demand what is fair. The boxer shorts are next.