The statistics show that very low numbers of eligible fathers take up the right to shared parental leave, or other statutory and flexible working rights, to enable care for their children.
In March 2018, the Women and Equalities Committee presented its Fathers and the Workplace report to the House of Commons. Within this report, it was made very clear that government action was needed to reform workplace policies in an attempt to support fathers to better balance their parental responsibilities with work and to ensure that workplace policies actually meet the needs of the socially minded 21st century. At the time, it was estimated that less than 2% of eligible couples took up shared parental leave, leaving mothers to take on childcare responsibilities in the main.
Despite seemingly good intentions of the government, particularly following the extension to the right to request flexible working and the introduction of shared parental leave, evidence obtained through employer organisations, trade unions and individual parents themselves confirms that existing statutory rights and current workplace policies do not deliver what they promise; fathers are simply not taking a more equal share of childcare despite wanting to be supported at work to do so. Further, despite all efforts to reduce the gender pay gap, and the government's overall intention to support fathers to share care for their children more equally, we still appear to be in an age where the mother takes on a traditional role in bringing up young children, especially where the father is the breadwinner in the relationship.
The gender pay gap will simply not be eliminated where women continue to find it difficult to re-join the workplace following the birth of their children; impacted further where the fathers of their children find it too difficult to balance their work and family lives with the current options available or where they are confronted with other workplace barriers.
Reasons why fathers don't take up their eligible rights
The below is in no way intended to be an exhaustive list, but illustrates some of the difficulties faced by fathers who wish to pursue available options to care for their children:
- There remains a cultural and societal stigma for men taking time off work because of concerns that they might come across less committed to their job if they ask for shared parental leave or other flexible working options to care for their children;
- Fathers only receive statutory paternity pay for up to two consecutive weeks, at the government set weekly rate, in comparison to the higher rates of statutory maternity pay (or statutory adoption pay) for mothers (or primary adopters respectively), which is at the higher rate of 90% of the mother's (or primary adopter's) pay for this same two week period;
- The process of applying for and taking shared parental leave is particularly confusing and cumbersome;
- Availability of entitlement to enhanced pay for shared parental leave is much less common in practice than enhanced maternity and adoption pay;
- There is no day-one right to take paid time off to attend antenatal appointments; taking unpaid time off work for shorter periods of time is often not a financially viable option for fathers, especially when work demands are high. Getting involved with fatherhood can therefore be difficult form the start;
- Some mothers would prefer to maintain the traditional gender based role and take the entirety of their right to time off and pay themselves - particularly where the mother breastfeeds her child(ren). Some mothers simply prefer to take the whole of the available time off themselves, regardless of earnings, but where the father is the breadwinner it is typically the case that the mother stays at home;
- Other than the options of shared parental leave, paternity leave, or taking paid holiday there are no other financially viable options to take paid time off. Parental leave and time off to care for dependents (in an emergency situation) are unpaid and opting to work flexibility often results in a shorter working week and less pay. It had been proposed previously that the government should consider the introduction of a new family friendly right allowing for a period of 12 weeks' dedicated paid leave in the child's first year, to replace shared parental leave and pay;
- In reality, there is often very little flexibility in the workplace and work commitments come first - especially when the mother may often be at home on a reduced salary throughout her maternity leave period;
- There is no statutory protection for being a father, as there is a mother who is protected from discrimination or detriment as a result of pregnancy or maternity;
- It is more difficult for self-employed fathers or fathers who undertake agency work to take time off as they are not covered by the applicable legislation;
- There is often a lack of awareness among fathers of all of the possible options to take time off to balance their work and family lives.
Response to the Fathers and the Workplace report
While the government has recently accepted that there is need for change in this area, it unfortunately rejected many of the proposals suggested by the Women and Equalities Committee in its report. Further still, the government didn't propose any other solutions to the problems faced. As such, the extremely important matter of diminishing the gender pay gap still seems some way away.
Employers are therefore encouraged to speak with all of their future and current fathers about parental responsibilities, and should be very open about all of the rights and opportunities that they have for equal parental responsibilities.
While the case law position remains uncertain as to whether it is indirectly discriminatory not to offer enhanced shared parental pay, when enhanced maternity pay is offered, consideration should nevertheless be given to the equalisation of such benefits for all, in the hope that fathers are also encouraged to take early responsibility for the care of their children.
Positive encouragement, ease of information, and opportunity for flexible working in a rapidly changing and agile society will all go a long way towards achieving equality, removing any unnecessary stigma attached to this important issue, and will also assist with reducing the gender pay gap.