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Topics: shared parental leave

Do parents really have a choice to share parental leave?

Although half of all parents are men, even today childcare is typically often viewed as the mother's domain, and it is commonly women who take time out from their careers to be at home for their children. Could shared parental leave signal the end of this disparity?

It's perhaps one of the most obvious inequalities between men and women that you'll see in everyday life. At a conference I attended earlier this year, a 28-year-old woman spoke about being the oldest full-time female employee in her team at work, because all the women older than her had steadily dropped out of the workplace to become parents. By contrast, her boss was a father of two, who regularly worked 12-hour days and came in at weekends – presumably leaving his partner to shoulder most of the burden of childcare.

This is a pattern you see replicated in offices across the country, and while flexible working schemes have gone some way to help working parents, shared parental leave has long been the missing part of the puzzle in the UK, despite countries like Sweden having had a similar policy for 30 years. In that all-important first year of their child's life, the ability for both mothers and fathers to share the joys, stresses and responsibilities of parenting duties could make a huge difference, not just to family life, but to improving workplace equality between men and women.

Shift in Behaviour

Given the broader societal shift towards more modern, egalitarian relationships in recent decades, it's no surprise that shared parental leave is something 70% of men and 61% of women say they would embrace. Relationships where both partners work and split household chores equally are now far more common than in previous generations, when roles were typically divided along gendered lines, so it's natural that an increasing number of couples would want their parenting roles to follow suit.

Some feminists have long argued that greater equality of the sexes would benefit men as well as women. Shared parental leave could, in theory, help men to take a more hands-on approach to raising their children, while also making it easier for women to return to work earlier. Further still, it has the potential to bring about a longer-term cultural shift by creating workplaces where it is the norm for both mothers and fathers to require more flexible working beyond the first year of their child's life, to accommodate school sports days, doctors appointments, and all the other parental duties that currently tend to fall to mothers.

All of this sounds great in principle but, of course, shared parental leave will only help to improve domestic and workplace equality if working parents actually choose to take it. The government currently estimates an initial uptake of 2-8% and, when you take a closer look at what's actually on offer, it's not hard to see why.

Key Question

With employers only obliged to offer statutory pay – and even then, only for 37 weeks of the 50 week parental leave – one of the key questions raised about the new policy has been whether many normal families will be able to afford for both parents to take time off during the first year of their child's life.

At £139.58 per week, the statutory pay for parental leave is only just over half the national minimum wage of £260 per week, making it a significant cutback for most full-time working couples. It's difficult to see how many new parents could afford to take such a drastic cut in both their salaries without having a significant savings fund behind them, and it seems especially likely that new fathers will lose out financially in this arrangement.

The disappearance of women from their places of work, both during and after their maternity leave period, is often dismissed as simply "women's choices", but these choices have to be viewed from a social and economic context. When making decisions about parenting, heterosexual couples face the pressure of social expectations about which parent should be responsible for childcare, coupled with the economic factor that men are typically better paid than their female partners, whether through (illegal but still prevalent) gender pay disparities, or tending to work in industries with different pay grades.

Feminists have long critiqued the way society undervalues childcare, both culturally and economically, and the new provisions for shared parental leave sadly do not go far enough to remedy this for the majority of normal families. One in five employers are expected to offer enhanced pay, over and above the statutory amount, but the vast majority of working parents will still face difficult practical and financial decisions about who should be left holding the baby.

In the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s (commonly referred to as the Second Wave of feminism), free 24-hour nurseries, funded by the state, were one of the campaigners' seven key demands, so that women could choose to become mothers without having to drop out of the workforce. Now 40 years on, there's still much more that could be done to provide working parents with the flexibility needed for true equality.

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