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Paternity and Shared Parental Leave: dispelling traditional gender roles

A tech entrepreneur recently publicly condemned men who opt to take longer periods of paternity leave. It is crucial that this outdated narrative is dispelled to ensure greater equality in relation to maternity, paternity and other types of parental leave.

A prominent US entrepreneur recently branded men that take six months paternity leave “losers” and claimed that the “correct masculine response” is for men to work harder to provide for their children. The controversial comments triggered public debate and demonstrate that there is still a need to move beyond the traditional views that surround gender roles. The UK legislative framework has adapted significantly in recent years to cater for changing norms. However, there is still an exceptionally low uptake of shared parental leave and outdated attitudes remain. Both employers and society as a whole should ensure that they respect the individual choices that people make to best suit themselves and their families. Further, employers can actively take steps to encourage the uptake of paternity and shared parental leave opportunities in the knowledge that this will improve the organisation’s culture and diversity.

Maternity, Paternity and Adoption Leave rights

In the UK, a range of family friendly rights exist for parents to help them to balance their childcare responsibilities with work. The following statutory rights are currently in place:

  • Maternity Leave - employees have the right to take up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave and to receive up to 39 weeks’ statutory maternity pay. The first 26 weeks is considered ‘Ordinary Maternity Leave’ and the last 26 weeks is known as ‘Additional Maternity Leave’.
  • Adoption Leave – like maternity leave, statutory adoption leave can last for up to 52 weeks. For couples adopting a child, only one partner will be able to benefit from adoption leave. The partner who does not benefit from adoption leave might be eligible for paid paternity leave instead.
  • Paternity Leave – partners of those who are having a baby are entitled to either one or two consecutive weeks paid paternity leave after the child’s birth. This also applies when a couple are adopting a child or having a baby through a surrogacy arrangement.
  • Shared Parental Leave - in 2015, Shared Parental Leave was introduced which allows parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay in the first year after their child is born or placed with their family. This allows for greater flexibility in relation to childcare arrangements.

Why is the uptake of Shared Parental Leave still so low?

Despite shared parental leave being introduced over six years ago, it is reported that only 2% of those eligible currently opt to use it. It was thought that its introduction may help to reduce the gender pay gap by removing the pressures that many women face to become primary caregiver to their children. As a result of these pressures, many women find that their careers take a backseat.  However, although well-intentioned, shared parental leave demonstrates a vicious cycle as it seems that the gender pay gap also disincentivises fathers from taking parental leave. This is because, on average, they earn more than their female partners which makes it harder for families to sacrifice their main source of income.

Better rewarded and non-transferable shared parental leave might see an increased uptake and begin to tackle this issue. For example, in Sweden, paternity leave is well-paid and operates on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis which has led to a substantial rise in uptake.

As well as this, the disparaging comments recently published reinforce the traditional division of gender roles and can have a damaging impact on how parents choose to manage their childcare. In heterosexual relationships, the old-fashioned outlook indicates that it is the role of females to care for children whilst males act as the ‘breadwinner’ for the family. This overlooks the fact that many females are exceptionally career driven and may also cause men to fear being mocked by others for opting to take parental leave. Whilst stereotypes persist, it could be challenging to increase the use of shared parental leave and it is therefore crucial that the stigma attached to males in this regard is removed. In turn, this will enable women to pursue career growth with less limitations as they will benefit from receiving additional childcare support at home.

Same-sex couples

The traditional narrative also prejudices same-sex couples who choose to have a child as the discussion is based around heteronormative and gendered language which does not accurately represent their circumstances. For example, branding all men who take longer than two weeks paternity leave as “losers” is harmful for gay couples because it is likely that at least one male parent will opt to take a longer period off from work to care for their child. It should be open to everybody to decide how they choose to balance childcare commitments, without judgement from others.

What can employers do?

Whilst the government may have to revisit the current policy framework in order to increase uptake of paternity and shared parental leave, employers can still assist by:

  • fostering a supportive, non-judgemental culture
  • normalising employees taking leave after their child’s birth or adoption, regardless of that employee’s gender or sexual orientation
  • adopting a no-tolerance policy if employees make disparaging comments about colleagues who choose to use their paternity or shared parental leave rights
  • encouraging senior figures to take paternity leave opportunities (if they so wish) in order to provide role models for other employees
  • introducing enhanced paternity leave pay above the statutory minimum level; and
  • publishing a clear policy on maternity, paternity and other types of parental leave to ensure that employees know their rights.

Whilst the prominent US tech entrepreneur expressed what he believes to be the “correct masculine response”, it should be countered that the only ‘correct response’ is to do whatever you believe to be best for your children and your own family circumstances.

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2022.

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