As a country we offer good maternity leave provisions with women’s jobs being protected for up to six months for the exact same job and a year for a job of similar size and scope. Statutory maternity pay of nine months is also offered, which is quite impressive when you compare that to the US, which still does’t have federal statute governing maternity leave!
We have had equal pay and equal opportunities law for over 30 years but the numbers of women at the top of organisations is still depressingly low. The trouble is that it’s hard to run a house, a family and a job at the same time.
So changing the law, in April, to allow parents to share up to 50 weeks of parental leave is actually a piece of far-sighted legislation that could do a lot to change the gender divide in care-giving and bread-winning in the UK. We are six months on now and judging by the number of applications by men for shared parental leave in our largely male-dominated clients, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s having very little impact. However, I think that would be overly negative because changes are afoot.
Just last week I was coaching a female lawyer who went back to work at the six month mark only to be dumped by her nanny on the actual day of her return. Fortunately, her husband had agreed that he would take six weeks shared parental leave and so what could have been a disaster, which she would have had to manage on her first day back at work, became his problem because he was still at home.
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“He works for a media company where that sort of thing is absolutely fine,” was her reply when I queried how easy it had been for him to get six weeks off. She also mentioned that it was actually the first time that he had managed the twins on his own but the experience has really helped him become more confident and get good at it.
In my experience of coaching many women through maternity, when the father has had a spell of looking after the baby on his own it makes a real difference to her successful return to work. Instead of her having to do all the thinking, which is a constant source of resentment to returning mothers, they actually feel that they are consciously co-parenting which halves the load.
Through our work with women who return to work after having a baby, we know that young men increasingly want a greater role in co-parenting. There are a lot of myths around parenting, which suggest that women are more capable of looking after children than men are but development in neuroscience has resulted in tests which prove that men are just as capable of hearing a baby crying at night as women, for example. They also show that the plasticity of the brain is such that it actually changes structure the more time you spend around a baby to make your more adept at child-rearing.
So if the desire is there and the skills are there then why isn’t there a stampede to take up shared parental leave. The first reason is simple. It’s economic. Our new study, “Women and the City“, shows 37 per cent of young women feel they won’t be able to make use of the parental leave due to financial worries and companies not offering men the same enhanced maternity pay – so unless bosses match that enhanced offer to men to encourage them to take parental leave they are not likely to go for it.
The second reason is cultural. If it’s hard for women to take time out to have a baby and still be seen as committed to her career it’s twice as hard for men to do likewise. Some of the more traditional, male-dominated industries are still quite macho and a man who elected to take time out to look after children would be subjected to a lot of ribbing if not outright discrimination were he to do so. Our research found that 53 per cent of young women believe father’s concerns/attitude and reaction from peers could act as a barrier and prevent many fathers from taking up their shared leave entitlement.
What we need are some brave male pioneers that request shared parental leave and actively promote it in their own teams. It is often said that men are less risk-averse than women, well let’s hope that this is an area in which they choose to take the risk as by doing so it will help to normalise time out to look after family. In the long run the best way to get rid of the maternity penalty is to blur the gender divide between care-giving and bread-winning.
Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don’t miss Real Business’s First Women programme:
Drawing on years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit – designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.
Geraldine Gallacher is managing director of Executive Coaching Consultancy.
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