Shared Parental leave: a start to breaking down gender inequality?

Shared parental leave (SPL) enables men and women to share care for their children in the first year. I’m going to start by being optimistic – by assuming that men will start taking up this opportunity to take time off to care for their children at this critical phase of their lives, and that this will then lead to a breakdown in the stereotype of women in their 20’s and 30’s as being on ‘the mummy track.’

In her TED talk about women at the top, Sheryl Sandberg points out that women are not making it to the top in any profession in any place in the world Why? Her view is that women underestimate their abilities, do not negotiate for themselves in the workplace and start losing their aspirations when they first think about having children. Her 3 messages to women are ‘Sit at the table, not at the side,’ ‘Don’t leave before you have to leave’ and ‘Make your partner a real partner’. Yes, she is mainly talking about women at or near the top but her point is also that if 50% of companies were run by women, work would be a better place for women.

It’s not easy. When I started out as a lawyer I deliberately took jobs where I would not be sacked for getting pregnant. So many of us make work choices to achieve that elusive ‘work life balance’ – and it is often because of the stereotypes which are reinforced by dads working long hours and not sharing the care. Mothers suffer a pregnancy penalty; fathers get a fatherhood bonus.

In 20 years of advising pregnant employees and new mothers, I see little change in attitudes towards women of child-bearing age. There are more maternity rights, better pay, protection from discrimination and some employers are trying hard, eg by setting up practices trying to retain women and enter into competitions to be the most ‘Family Friendly’ employer.

But there are still many shocking examples of employers sacking pregnant women for no good reason, passing them over for promotion, making women redundant on their return from maternity leave or re-organising them into lower status jobs. It is not only, as Sheryl Sandberg says, that women ‘lean back’ but that employers lean in on maternity returners, often taking away their responsibilities making it impossible for them to stay or making maternity returns redundant.

Why SPLASH (SPL Advice on Sharing Hub): We worry that employers and employees will not know about, or understand, the SPL regime. For this reason a group of us (YESS, Maternity Action, Working Families, Practical Law, Cloisters and Old Square Chambers) have set up a micro site to explain SPL and shared parental pay in an accessible way, through FAQs, Factsheets, and practical examples. Our aim is to make the new scheme work for everyone because it is good for families, for employees, for employers and for gender equality.

SPL is good for fathers because they can agree with the mother to take time off in the first year. It is good for mothers as it enables them to make choices about how to split the childcare. It is good for children to have more time with their father. It is good for employers as there is more scope to agree flexibility of working and leave patterns in the first year.

How are we going to fix this? Sheryl Sandberg says that it’s about keeping women in the workforce. Sharing of caring should help. Men must be willing to take time off. Women should encourage this. More importantly employers must support both women and men who want time off in the child’s first year and ensure that they are not disadvantaged for taking that time. It’s not a quick fix but it’s a start in achieving the goal of 50-50 at all levels.

Camilla Palmer, CEO of Your Employment Settlement Service



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