The government is pushing to improve the rights of fathers, but how many men will actually make use of them?
Nowadays, new mums can take a maximum year off after their child’s birth, while fathers are entitled to just one or two weeks statutory paternity leave. Fathers go back to work feeling guilty that they won’t be around to help out more, while mums do most of the heavy lifting parenting wise.
Now though, this widely accepted order of things are set to change. From April 2015 the government is introducing ‘shared parental leave’ for new parents. For the past three years, parents have been legally allowed to share some of the 52 week’s leave, with the dad able to take up to six months, starting after the baby hits 20 weeks old. However, this can currently only be taken as a single block. You won’t be surprise to hear that take-up by fathers has been low.
The government’s new proposals make the arrangement more flexible, meaning parents can share the load as they see fit. The 52 weeks’ leave (apart from the first fortnight, which is deemed too important for a new mother’s recovery and bonding with the baby) can be split up. Provided their employers agree, mum and dad can swap places several times during the year. Theoretically, we could start to see more men taking nearly a year off to look after their baby, while their partner goes back to work. Or parents tag-teaming in and out, alternating between work and playground.
It’s a neat idea on paper: progressive, promoting equality and bringing us more in line with our European cousins. In Sweden fathers are entitled to 14 months of paternity leave, on 80 percent of their salary (up to a capped limit of around £82 a day), plus a ‘gender equality bonus’ of £300 per month.
So what are the benefits of making the Swedes? Experts believe it goes far beyond the amount of time we will spend in and out of the office. ‘Shared parental leave is a crucial step towards enabling more women to progress into senior roles,’ says Charles Elvin, chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management. ‘There is still a haemorrhage of fantastically talented women in business. Share parental leave is an important piece in the jigsaw of holding on to that talent. Anything we can do to bring more of these women back into the workplace or stop them from leaving will help organisations, women and society as a whole. That’s not all. Elvin also says that when businesses recognise shared leave, they will have more productive and motivated staff. ‘When an employer works with an employee on an issue like parental leave, it shows they are valued and changes their level of engagement, and the nature of the relationship.’
Ceri Goddard, director of gender at the Young Foundation, is also a fan. ‘Greater paternity leave is a key frontier for achieving greater gender equality, and to benefit our society and economy as a whole, ‘ she explains. ‘Where care is needed at home, men need to step up and play and equal part. The government is going in the right direction, but could have been much bolder and learnt from other countries, where reserving paid leave for fathers on a ‘use it or lose it‘ basis has been the number of man taking leave soar.’
Will the government’s move make much difference? Probably not. Bosses may raise an eyebrow if a man asks for more than a fortnight off. Most men won’t even ask, fearing it would damage their career prospects. Indeed, a recent study found that one in three fathers who work in the City of London took either no paternity leave at all or cut short their two-week entitlement, while one in five though it would be ‘ career suicide’ to ask for time off.
It seems that even in the 21st century, men can’t help slipping back into stereotypical gender roles: women are carers, men are breadwinners. Full –time dads are still the exception rather than the rule. Don’t despair though Dads are more hands-on now than ever. They might well take advantage of their parental rights. And even if they don’t, they will certainly appreciate having the choice.