Who's Holding the Baby

15th June 2018

The government may have updated the law to make it easier for either parent to take time off to look after their little ones – but there’s still a huge gender disparity. With Father’s Day coming up this Sunday 17 June, Jennifer Lipman asks…

The traditional picture of the British father is of a cigar-smoking businessman, coming in after a hard day to pat his offspring on their heads. Or, more recently, it’s a hapless man-child, confounded at the idea of changing nappies and desperately hoping for the return of his more capable wife.

The first may be consigned to history, but the second is still a staple in the media, where fathers looking after children are often described as ‘babysitters’. Yet for many, it couldn’t be further from the truth. While the full-time stay-at-home-dad remains a rare breed, a growing number of millennial men are putting work on hold to care for their babies.  

In 2015, bringing the UK more in line with Scandinavian countries and aiming to boost the number of women in employment, the Government introduced shared parental leave (SPL). This entitles couples to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of statutory pay, provided certain conditions are met. The leave can be taken simultaneously, concurrently, or in blocks. It is paid at a slightly lower rate than statutory maternity pay (fathers are not automatically given six weeks at 90% of their salary).

At the time, business groups warned small firms would suffer, but campaigners welcomed it as a levelling of the playing field and an important step in making life easier for families balancing the demands of childcare and work.
The advantages for mothers are obvious. They can return to work faster and minimise the disruption to their careers that is a key contributor to the gender pay gap and the poor representation of women at senior levels of business. If more men take leave, employers may also stop seeing young women as a potential timebomb and start looking at structural issues like flexible working.

“Potentially both parents will be out of work for a shorter period so it could have less impact on one partner’s career or on their workplace,” points out Emma Webster, CEO of Your Employment Settlement Service. “It could allow the father to assist the woman’s transition back to work by taking the final three months off and allow her to know the baby is being cared for by someone else who loves it.”
Owain Roberts, a property development manager with a nine-month old, is currently on SPL. Growing up, he remembers his stay-at-home-mum announcing out of frustration “I gave up my career for you children”. The concept stayed with him. “I didn’t want Sophie to make the same statement,” he explains.

It can also give fathers a better understanding of the pressures facing working mothers and offer both parents more rest in that challenging early period. Genuinely sharing the care “is better for everyone than when the mum feels they are shouldering all the work and simply ‘delegating’ some tasks,” suggests Jennifer Liston-Smith from My Family Care.

As, if not more, importantly, SPL offers the chance for new fathers to bond with their newborn. “I had read a lot about how much father and baby can benefit,” explains Anthony Goodmaker, who took SPL when his son was eight months old, while his wife returned to teaching. “It was something I couldn’t turn down.”

“It’s been a bit shocking to some people, but it shouldn’t be,” adds Richard Verber, Head of External Affairs at World Jewish Relief. “If you’d met the world’s cutest 11-month-old you’d want to spend two months with her too.” At his workplace, he was the first person to request SPL. “I’m sure it’s been disruptive but the charity prides itself on the support if offers families.”

Anthony found his employer, the law-firm Forsters, similarly supportive. Soon after his informal request they told him they would offer six weeks’ full pay, and within minutes of asking his request was approved.

Yet, if uptake is anything to go by, this experience has not been the norm. Figures released in February showed that only around 2% of eligible couples were taking SPL. Some of that may be couples making a choice that suits them or women not wanting to forfeit what they perceive as their time. “Carrying a baby, getting it out and then looking after it for the first six months is hard,” acknowledges Owain. “It is understandable that as it starts to get manageable mothers don’t want to hand over to a novice.”

There are also cultural factors that may put men off. As Jennifer points out, “at home and with relatives, and at your local toddler group, is it yet accepted to see men as primary carers?”

But perhaps the bigger blockage is financial. “Men still generally make up the higher wage earner,” points out employment lawyer Jon Taylor, of EMW Law. “Simple household economics dictates that if you are going to have one part of your household income reduced substantially, it makes sense for it to be the lower income.” This is exacerbated by the fact many businesses remain reluctant to offer fathers anything above statutory pay – something Taylor says there is currently no pressure on employers to address. In two recent cases, he explains, “the courts found that it was not discriminatory for an employer to offer better maternity leave and pay benefits.”

Even if the finances add up, men may be reluctant to take the career hit women have been navigating for decades. “Many men have never even thought about taking time off work and don’t factor it in,” says Emma, who notes cases of men being told they can take SPL but not to expect to get their bonus or payrise. “This is unlawful but it does happen.”

“I don’t know what it will be like when I return. I imagine my workload will change but no different to a woman taking time off,” admits Owain. He recognises why some men feel that both careers shouldn’t suffer, but suggests it’s a short-term approach. “Sophie will earn more over her career by taking less off.” Already, he says, she has received a promotion and pay rise.”

Another obstacle is awareness – a survey for Working Families last year found that one in four fathers had no idea they were entitled. Many HR departments are still playing catch up, lacking defined SPL policies and hazy on the details.

“People just don’t really understand what is a really complex piece of legislation,” says Anthony. “When my wife was speaking to Job Centre Plus about the interaction between SPL and maternity pay there was a real lack of knowledge.”

The challenge is to normalise SPL and to encourage couples to at least see it as an option. Parenting website DaddiLife ran a project last year to uncover why families were not taking SPL. “Alongside concerns about family income, 59% of new parents thought other factors were just as important, including who had more ‘rights’ to the leave,” explains site spokesman Han-Son. “Few couples were even talking about it properly.”

Campaigners want a series of changes to boost uptake, including harmonising SPL and maternity pay, ensuring the first six weeks are enhanced, and extending it to self-employed parents.

But this must be mirrored by businesses waking up to the benefits to the wider workforce and recognising that these can outweigh any immediate costs. ”Organisations need to lead by example and men at the top need to start using the leave,” stresses Emma. “Companies should get out of the mind-set that any employee using any form of family related leave is negative. It should be seen part of the working life of any organisation.”

Equally, it’s about businesses seeing SPL as a way to increase retention. “I’m sure it’s a challenge for businesses, especially small ones, to lose employees for extended periods,” says Richard. “But employees who are well supported tend to reward their company with loyalty and high performance.”

What’s clear is that having the right to take SPL is not the same as ensuring that fathers do so. But campaigners are optimistic. SPL is only a toddler; by the time today’s babies are of age, it may be routine.
In the meantime, the more men that take it, the better. “It’s not seen as ‘normal’ at the moment,” Richard observes. “But, as fathers see other fathers take time off, more will follow.

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