As the Government launches a new drive to raise awareness about Shared Parental Leave, Dr Emma Banister looks at the issues dogging this flagship gender equality initiative.
• Success of the Shared Parental Leave scheme remains a challenge due to a lack of awareness and understanding as well as a range of barriers and constraints associated with the policy, its implementation in workplaces and the wider parenting culture
• Today government launched its #sharethejoy campaign to raise awareness further. We welcome this initiative but awareness-raising is a significant task.
• From talking to the fathers in our study it is clear that they have valued the opportunity to share leave with their partners and believe this has had a positive impact on their family life and relationships.
Shared parental leave (SPL) was introduced in April 2015 to encourage fathers (and partners) to play a greater role in childcare in the first year. The government hoped it would drive a cultural shift, by giving parents more choices around how they balance work and their family life. However, many commentators argue the resulting scheme is a lost opportunity to inform real change in gender equality.
Our research demonstrates that wider success of the scheme remains a challenge due to a lack of awareness and understanding as well as a range of barriers and constraints associated with the policy design, its implementation in workplaces and the wider parenting culture.
Awareness and knowledge about the scheme is a significant obstacle. The fathers in our study outlined their struggles to find complete and helpful information about the scheme, and Working Families revealed that one quarter of fathers don't know about SPL.
Today government launched its #sharethejoy campaign to raise awareness further. We welcome this initiative but awareness-raising is a significant task. One of the issues is the extent to which workplaces get behind SPL, and support employees in the application process.
As part of the research project I am conducting with Dr Ben Kerrane from Lancaster University we have attempted to tackle this by partnering with Working Families and the Fatherhood Institute to develop a suite of videos and case studies exploring families’ lived experiences of SPL. These videos are especially important for parents who do not have accessible information or role models within their organisations; they bring to life parents’ experiences with decision-making, as well as the leave itself.
We believe these videos provide a very useful awareness-raising tool, sharing parents’ views on the impact of SPL and informing employers about the concerns and challenges faced. We hope these videos go some way towards helping normalise shared parental leave as a possibility for many working parents.
Recommendations beyond raising awareness
Awareness isn’t the only issue with SPL. There are also big differences in the extent to which employers support SPL (for example, enhancing Statutory Shared Parental Pay, providing information and embracing flexibility). More proactive support from employers as well as greater numbers of role models would encourage parents to find out more about SPL as well as help to normalise working men as fathers.
Workplaces also have a key role in ensuring that SPL works for mothers who return to work earlier than they might, had they taken the full maternity leave. One area where there is less clarity regards how working mothers can be best supported in continuing to breastfeed. With increasing knowledge about the value of breastfeeding, ensuring support is in place for working breastfeeding mothers is essential and would help parents to make choices that are right for them. Workplaces could hold the answers here and best practice might include rooms to express in, fridges to store milk, flexibility for women to take breaks to express and/or feed their infant.
Outside of employment, parenting culture is not always welcoming of fathers as carers. While retailers are starting to wake up to the fact that both men and women require changing facilities and feeding rooms, the men in our study reported that some baby groups and activities can be experienced negatively. There is the potential for fathers to experience loneliness and isolation, feeling excluded from the support that is more freely available for women in their position, and of course this could potentially restrict the kinds of activities that infants are introduced to. While the fathers in our study enjoyed taking leave with their child, they sometimes craved the company of other dads, didn't always feel welcomed by mothers and were not comfortable with their ‘novelty’ status and assumptions they had taken the day off work.
Unfortunately given the small proportion of men who are eligible and able to take significant chunks of leave under the present scheme, we are a long way off seeing both men and women equally as carers (and workers). It is unlikely that the policy as it stands will see a major turnaround in gendered parenting roles any time soon. It needs to be better supported financially and available to more parents. Indeed next week Tracy Brabin MP will table a motion to call for SPL to be extended to the self-employed.
However, it is important to acknowledge the policy’s significance on a more individual level. From talking to the fathers in our study it is clear that they have valued the opportunity to share leave with their partners and believe this has had a positive impact on their family life and relationships.