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Flexible parent leave: Is gender equality reaching the workplace?

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The Liberal answer to old-fashioned, inflexible and gender-biased maternity leave: flexible parent leave. The new entitlement aims to revolutionise parents’ lives at work and home, by allowing both mother and father to share the 12-month leave to look after their newborn child.

This week, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced the Department of Business Education and Skills’ (BIS) new entitlement, flexible parent leave. “In the future, both mothers and fathers will be able to take control of how they balance those precious first months with their child and their careers,” so Nick Clegg explained. “This is good news not only for parents and parents-to-be, but employers too who will benefit from a much more flexible and motivated workforce.”

Gender equality

In theory, flexible parent leave helps mothers with professional careers return to work at a time right for them, and means fathers can play a greater role in raising their child. Employed mothers will still be entitled to 50 weeks of maternity leave, but can opt to share the leave with their partner.

“Suddenly, when [women] hit their late 20s, their early 30s, despite all their earlier momentum, despite all the endless possibility, they are suddenly stopped in their tracks,” said Clegg. “It’s like a rubber band snaps these women back. Because, the moment they start planning a family, their options begin to narrow.”

With flexible parent leave, parents can chose how they share the care of their child in the first year after birth. New mothers are required to take the initial two weeks after birth (four weeks for manual workers) to recover. Following this they can choose to end maternity leave and share the remaining leave with their partner.

Professional parents are entitled to mix and match their leave: either partners can take six months in turn or both at the same time. This will allow both mother and father to maintain strong ties with their workplace. In theory, women will face less of a career penalty for taking an extensive period of time off.

Helen Wells, director of Opportunity Now, believes: “Shared parental leave will be a huge step towards gender equality as the ability to share childcare responsibility within a family is core to women’s success in the workplace.

“Fathers are involved in their children’s lives right from the beginning and women will no longer suffer – or suffer fewer – career penalties for having children.”

The Government will consult over the next year on how the system is administrated. It is thought that parents will be required to provide a self-certified notice of their leave entitlement to their employers eight weeks beforehand.

How will flexible leave affect business?

The government believe the new rules will engage employees and support business by helping employers attract and retain women in their organisation. Evidence from the Employers Worklife Balance survey in 2007 showed that flexible working creates a productive and motivated workforce, saves employers money from reduced absenteeism and lower turnover costs, and allows them to retain highly skilled staff.

In order to assist business growth throughout this unstable time, the deputy prime minister has decided not to extended the 52-day maternity leave or the 14-day paternity leave. This is still under review until the economy is in a strong position

Will flexible parent leave help to remove gender bias? Professional women now have the option to start a family while maintaining their career. Inflexible professional positions or the impact of unconscious bias within the workplace means that many are held back from reaching their full potential. This results in dropping out of the labour market or poor progression and being paid less than male contemporaries. For business and economy, this means the loss of talented employees.

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