Shared parental leave, implemented in 2015, allows parents to share up to 50 weeks of caring for their new-born child – 37 of which are paid. Mothers can finish their maternity leave early and then hand the proverbial parenting baton over to the father. Of course, parents could take leave at the same time, or switch places so that the father takes his leave first. The parent taking shared leave must have worked for the same employer for 26 weeks, which means 285,000 couples qualify each year. However, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has suggested the take-up “could be as low as two per cent.” Currently, 2.1m people are out of the labour market as they need to take care of family members – 90 per cent of them are women. Research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies suggested its impact is quite disconcerting, as female workers earn two per cent less for each year they spent outside of the workplace. Similarly, if women were allowed to go back to work knowing their children were being looked after by their partner, it could add £150bn to annual GDP by 2025. With such statistics backing shared parental leave up, why is the take-up so slow? In part, according to BEIS, it has to do with low awareness. Even now, much of the population isn’t aware that the option exists. Many companies also don’t have policies in place to cater for those hoping to make use of it. Largely hoping to draw the attention of employers, the government launched a new campaign entitled Share the Joy. Its website explained: “Giving people more choice and flexibility to combine work with childcare responsibilities means parents are able to work in jobs that match their qualifications and experience. As an employer, you’ll be able to better recruit and retain talent.” Talent aside, that shared parental leave is closely linked with the gender pay gap is a subject the government also touched upon – one of the reasons it has invested some £1.5m into the new campaign. And while it places much emphasis on mothers, it acknowledges that fathers are equally as important in the equation – and that the former won’t have their true share of rights until paternity and shared parental leave is on everyone’s radar. In this regard, culture and perception are deterrents. Most recently, a report by the Women and Equalities Committee claimed men still felt “embarrassed” to ask employers for their entitlements, fearing the impact it could have on their career. The report said: “According to Dr Helen McCarthy [from Queen University of London] and [the University of Leeds’] Dr Laura King, the male breadwinner ideal has proved remarkably resilient throughout the 20th century. “Furthermore, Maternity Action argued that high levels of pregnancy and maternity discrimination indicate fathers can have little confidence that their own rights as parents will be respected. “In exercising rights to leave and flexible working, fathers risk job loss, demotion and negative comments. Individual fathers who gave evidence to the inquiry told us about negative workplace cultures. One described coming up against a ‘macho culture’ and concern about being seen as ‘soft’.” These are all issues Share the Joy hopes to bring to the fore. At the end of the day, there is still much that employers can do to help employees enjoy their children early on.
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