Could equal parental leave create equal opportunity for all?

With the General Election fast approaching, the Labour party has pledged to improve parental leave and women's working rights in the office.

The Labour party aims to increase the length of Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) from nine months to a year. But will increasing the time women have out of the office improve diversity and inclusion within the workplace or just perpetuate gender inequality?

Currently, SMP is paid up to 39 weeks with a pregnant employee receiving 90% of their average weekly earnings for the first six weeks. Then 90% or £148.68 of their average weekly earnings for the next 33 weeks. Labour say they want women to continue receiving the latter for an extra three months. The Conservative party say they will introduce “responsible reforms” to improve women’s working rights.

Balancing parental leave

Extending the time mothers have off work for childcare may appear positive at first glance. Yet to create an inclusive and diverse environment within a workplace, where women and parents feel valued and not gendered, the goal of businesses and organisations should be to split maternity and paternity leave equally.

People who take paternity leave because their partner is having a baby, adopting a child or having a baby through surrogacy arrangement are only allowed one or two weeks. If parents, whatever their sexual orientation, have the same amount of paid time off work, then the long-term improvements will have a greater impact in terms of diversity and inclusion.

Equal care

Creating an equal parental leave system within a workplace will encourage balanced child care roles which could improve the Gender Pay Gap and provide equal opportunities. For instance, if parents are given the same amount of parental leave no matter what gender or sex they identify as, then employers will be less likely to discriminate against women based on the possibility of them becoming pregnant.

UK Businesses leading the way

Accenture has been recognised as one of the top places to work for prospective parents. The company offers both male and female employees 36 weeks of fully paid parental leave. They even go beyond providing decent maternity and paternity leave through their Working Parents Advisory Forum, which gives support to employees through shaping company policy and sharing practical information.

The managing director of Accenture, Mark Smith, took seven months of parental leave to take care of his son. He says this allowed him to take a more active role in caring for his newly born son. Mark explains that it was important for him to take shared parental leave so that others in the company could see that it wouldn’t impact their careers negatively. Accenture has promoted many people who are either on or have recently returned from shared parental leave.

Another company which strives to create equal parental leave is Etsy UK. The e-commerce website, which gives artists and creatives the ability to sell their work online, has over 800 full-time employees worldwide. They offer their workers 26-weeks of parental leave. However, it is gender blind meaning employees can receive paid parental leave regardless of their gender identity.

Etsy UK also offers a New Parent Support Credit which was launched after the company listened to employees’ desire for alternative forms of support for new and expecting parents. These new parents can choose to exchange up to 14 weeks of parental leave for a cash payment which can be used to facilitate childcare or other forms of support through their transition back to work.

Matt Newkirk works for Etsy in California and took six months of parental leave for the birth of his daughter. Similar to the UK, most parents in the United States do not receive this much maternity or paternity leave, especially fathers. However, with his paid leave, Matt was able to become the primary caregiver for his son while his wife was recovering. He says on his blog “when your company reviews the benefits it offers, encourage your leaders to embrace parental leave as a strong value add”.

Scandinavian icon

Sweden was the first country in the world that allowed parents to split their leave to improve gender equality. The country offers its citizens up to 480 days of subsidised leave per child which parents share equally. In contrast to other Western countries, this implementation has created a more gender-equal cultural outlook on child care roles. Instead of women being labelled the sole caregivers, both parents within a partnership are seen to share the role.

According to the 2019 Modern Families Index, employers who offer a more family-friendly environment provide workers with boosted satisfaction, retention, motivation and discretionary effort. Equal opportunity, therefore, should be integral in the workplace because sexism and discrimination will ultimately undermine an organisation in the long-term.

Party pledge

The Labour party’s pledges to extend maternity leave are admirable; however, perhaps a more effective way to reduce gender inequality within the workplace is for employers themselves to implement policies which benefit both parents in a partnership.

Inclusion is important in the office environment because through eliminating inequalities such as gender inequality, a company can utilise their workforce to the best of their ability. Harnessing the full potential of every employee and creating a space for a diverse range of staff members allows companies to flourish to their fullest state.

Manon Dark

Manon Dark is a freelance journalist.

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