Is Shared Parental Leave really the great equaliser?

Date Posted: Tuesday 16th March 2021

Childcareparental leave

A year on from the first lockdown and one thing is clear – women have carried the heaviest burden of unpaid work while schools and nurseries were closed. During the last year, while fathers’ unpaid workload increased the gap between paid and unpaid work remained stubborn.

And this matters because the unpaid work women do is a significant barrier for women’s economic opportunities and overall quality of life. This work, which has historically been unmeasured and undervalued, underpins the paid economy and is a key factor in determining whether women enter and stay in paid employment and the quality of jobs they perform.

Women are more likely to care, women are more likely to take time off from work to care and overall women do 60% more care and earn 43% less than men. Changing the way unpaid work is shared (or not shared) is hard. Social norms and expectations can be difficult to shift. In the UK, this is made harder by our leave system when a child is born, which reinforces the unequal sharing of leave.

Men are entitled to just two weeks of paternity leave after the child is born, while women are entitled to 52 weeks. Shared Parental Leave was introduced in April 2015 by the coalition government and hailed by former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg as an opportunity to allow ‘men to become more hands-on fathers and stop women feeling they have to choose between a career or a baby’. But has this really been the case?

Before we delve deeper into the Shared Parental Leave system, we must first call it what it actually is. It would be more accurate to describe the system as ‘transferred maternity leave’, as the current policy does not create additional parental leave entitlement but simply allows the primary parent to transfer all but two weeks of their leave to the father or other co-parent.

The current system of shared parental leave has generated a number of issues, the three most pressing being low take up, low eligibility and low pay. The lack of incentive in design has meant that only 2% of eligible couples made use of SPL in the last year. Plus, complex eligibility provisions that depend on the earnings of two parents massively reduces the possibility that a couple, between them, will meet the eligibility criteria.

But can we create a parental leave system that works when gender roles are so entrenched? In the UK 2018, three years after SPL was introduced, the take-up rate stood at just 10%. Whereas the Swedish model of parental leave which is based on individual, non-transferable rights for each parent and moderate pay for each parent on leave has seen a dramatic increase of up-take and has also normalised the use of leave for fathers.

A new system of parental leave needs to create a culture that encourages and incentivises fathers and second parents to take their parental leave. Evidence from several EU countries shows that legal provisions help foster change and encourage men to take their leave. A new and improved system would mean each parent having an individual, non-transferable, right to time off and pay, reserved just for them – Maternity Action frame this as the ‘use it or lose it’ model.

Accompanying this will be the need to make the system simple and easy to understand for both the parent and the employer to help ease stigma. Some big brand businesses have started to take note. Diageo, Aviva and Investec being one of the few companies offering their staff equal parental leave – with studies showing that flexible working patterns increases productivity and retains talent.

Unfortunately, none of this will work without increasing the rate of statutory paternity pay. The UK currently has one of the lowest rates of statutory maternity and paternity pay rates in Europe falling from 60% of the national living wage to just 52% since 2010. There is no compelling reason to use the SPL scheme with the risk of primary earners (typically men) seeing their pay being cut to £150 a week – an unfeasible ask of most families.

The presence of the father or the co-parent in the early years of a child’s life, arguably establishes better connection with the child and creates a healthy divide of care responsibilities throughout the child’s lifetime. But reforming the shared parental leave policy is not only important for fathers, but to tackle long term inequalities that women face in the home, workplace and through to pension age.

Modernising parental leave however is not enough, we need a complete reformation of the total system which includes protections from redundancy, flexible working for all jobs and proper maternity leave protection. The new system must promote choice so that families can decide how they want to balance paid work and care and make a decision based on the needs of family members rather than an economic decision.

The UK’s Women’s Budget Group hosted a webinar on reforming the Shared Parental Leave policy, and released a joint policy briefing with Maternity Action outlining the details of a new system of parental leave. The joint briefing can be read here.

This discussion was chaired by Sonia Sodha, (The Observer/ Guardian) and we heard from Jules Allen (UK Women’s Budget Group), Ros Bragg (Maternity Action), Adrienne Burgess (Fatherhood Institute), Charlotte Nichols MP (Shadow Equalities Minister), Wera Hobhouse MP (Liberal Democrats Equality spokesperson) and Maria Miller MP (Former Chair of the Women & Equalities Committee).

Click here for the full recording of the webinar.

Ebyan Abdirahman