How extending fathers’ parental leave will help address the paternity paradox

Chris Parke, CEO and Co-founder, Talking Talent, challenges businesses to tackle the paternity paradox and level the playing field for mothers and fathers at work.

As one of her last acts as Prime Minister, Theresa May launched a consultation into statutory paternity leave in the UK, which will consider whether new fathers should receive 12 weeks of paid leave – a vast improvement on the two weeks they currently receive.

Throwing down the gauntlet to her successor, Theresa May described this as the ‘first step towards equalising the roles of men and women at home and in work’.

As one of the least family-friendly of the world’s richest countries, this is a welcome step forward. Employers are currently doing little to offer and enable extended parental leave: just 9% of UK businesses offer a paternity leave package over and above the statutory amount.

The paternity paradox

Whilst the conversation around women’s maternity rights is well-established – although far from a solved problem – fathers’ feelings have had little to no consideration at all. Research has highlighted that men now face a ‘paternity paradox’, of wanting successful careers and being devoted fathers, whilst experiencing the same difficulties that women have encountered for generations when it comes to balancing work and children.

Talking Talent’s research found that half (51%) of respondents thought that fathers who took shared parental leave would experience a detrimental effect on their careers. Furthermore, 53% of fathers feared judgement if they chose shared parental leave, versus 34% of mothers. As a result, 51% of fathers wouldn’t want to share parental leave, versus 41% of mothers.

Shared parental leave

Given the importance of the first few months of a baby’s life, it is imperative that fathers get time off to bond with their newborn and to adjust to their new life as a parent within the family dynamic.

In 2015, the government introduced shared parental leave (SPL), designed to allow couples to share leave following the birth or adoption of a child and enable fathers to take longer parental leave. However, according to the TUC, just 1 per cent of new parents used shared parental leave last year. Clearly, the current system is unfit for purpose.

Some organisations do offer more generous packages (less than 10% of businesses), and Diageo are pioneering equality for both parents by offering fully paid 26-week equal parental leave, but there is still a way to go to make longer paternity leave the accepted norm.

The first step…

Although this marks a welcome step in the right direction, for Theresa May’s solution to succeed, companies need to offer at least 90% of a father’s salary for the first four weeks of parental leave. If this isn’t made available, it will unlikely have any take-up, and could ultimately become a barrier for new fathers, depending on their wage.

Having a child is one of the most financially stressful occasions in someone’s life, and many families are unlikely to be able to do without the father’s wage at this difficult time. If fathers cannot afford to take the time off, then the policy becomes obsolete.

It shouldn’t be means-tested, either, to exclude higher earners from the same benefits as other parents. No matter how much they earn, all fathers should be given the opportunity to spend precious time with their children. This is crucial, not just for the individuals involved, but for breaking down social, class and prejudicial barriers.

A cultural change

A reform in the perception of parental, and specifically paternity, leave is essential now more than ever. In this day and age, where more and more people are migrating away from ‘traditional’ parenting, and fathers are adopting the role of main caregiver whilst mothers return to work, now is the time to revolutionise the way new fathers are supported. ONS figures indicate that between April and June 2019 there were 1.13 million stay at home fathers in the UK.

Gender aside, research has shown that whilst 58% of working parents wish to return to work, 70% of them feel they are failing as parents in some way because of work pressures. Further to this, the research also found over half of all working parents (56%) agreed that their career progression slowed down after they had a child.

With the right level of support, however, the relationship between parenthood and professional success can be nurtured and become mutually beneficial for employees and employers. 50% of men report improvement in their organisational skills as a result, whilst 46% were better at managing people when they became a parent.

Stepping away from the traditional

Historically, parental leave focus fell predominantly on working mothers, meaning fathers were often excluded from the conversation. The situation for women is by no means solved, but it is important that we address all parental leave and flexibility restrictions. Gender equality shouldn’t mean that being a working parent has to be as hard for men as it has in the past for women – ultimately, both men and women should be offered flexibility as they adapt to their new family dynamic. We must, of course, continue to enable organisations to cater to working mothers, but let’s not leave fathers behind.

About the Author

Chris Parke has been an executive coach for over 15 years and specialises in coaching senior talent, Partners in professional services firms and HIPO or rising stars. It was a passion for the commercial benefits of gender diversity, and balanced leadership teams led Chris to found Talking Talent.

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