Fathers and Shared Parental Leave – a call for ideas on primary research

I want to encourage anyone who reads this blog post to contact me with ideas which might help to continue my work in this area. Let me know too if you would like to collaborate. My contact details are below.

Shared Parental Leave (SPL) was introduced in 2015 to enable mothers to return to work whilst encouraging fathers (or other partners) to take an extended period (or periods) of leave to care for their child in its first year. In theory, a popular SPL scheme could create benefits for many working mothers in terms of enhanced career prospects. Children can benefit from greater paternal involvement in the early weeks. A wider benefit would be that the gender pay gap would continue to narrow. So far, research has shown an extremely low take up rate by fathers: somewhere between 0.5 and 2% of eligible fathers.  How can this be explained? Despite the discourse emphasising the value of caring or involved fatherhood in recent years, the historic role of fathers in the UK has been seen primarily as economic provider or ‘breadwinner’. The involved father discourse is simply not as well established in the UK as it is in other countries.

But SPL as a policy is also partly to blame. Considering examples from other countries, fathers generally only take up parental leave if (a) they are adequately compensated whilst on leave and (b) there is a period of leave which is reserved exclusively for fathers, which is lost if not taken. Currently SPL has neither of these features.

In the current economic climate, it seems unrealistic to expect the government to increase the statutory rate of pay available to parents taking SPL (currently 90% of average weekly earnings or £139.58 per week, whichever is the lower). So for those of us who think that more equal sharing of leave between parents is desirable, our focus should be on trying to persuade employers of the value of SPL for their employees and therefore, their businesses.  Many working fathers want the chance to take more than just a week or two of leave immediately after the birth. If employers offer that opportunity, those employees will be happier and more motivated in the future. If employers accept that there is a business case, they are more likely to decide that they should pay employees taking SPL at the same (or similar) rate as employees taking maternity leave.  There is evidence of some employers (one example is Ernst & Young LLP) who have already taken this decision.  This sends a clear message that fathers/partners taking leave are valued as much as mothers.

How could primary research contribute to achieving this objective? Do we talk to employees and managers from organisations which are compensating their employees at higher than the statutory rate? The risk is that this kind of research may not acknowledge the financial commitment and administrative and staffing difficulties which SPL can produce, particularly for small or medium-sized businesses. Do we talk to employees and managers who considered a request but did not carry it through e.g. because they feared negative consequences for their career? The other difficulty may be obtaining access to talk to these employees, let alone managers, in the first place. Could we complete a case study on one or two organisations where positive requests and discontinued ‘requests’ might be collected? I would like to explore the conversations between line managers and employees and to what extent they were formalised. Ideally I want this blog post to start a conversation, so please do post a comment on the website or contact me directly via Twitter: @atkojl or via email: j.atkinson@mmu.ac.uk.

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