After decades of employment legislation focused largely on maternity leave, the concept of both parents being able to tap into a post-baby career break seems like a huge step forward for gender equality. The current reality, however, is quite different, with far fewer participants than was anticipated. Quite why this is the case is a question that desperately needs an answer.
According to recent research undertaken by CIPD, only 5% of new fathers have taken up this opportunity since it was introduced in Spring 2015. The figures for women are hardly any better, at just 8%. In two-thirds of the organisations surveyed, the take-up figure for either gender was exactly zero.
So what is the issue here? On paper, shared parental leave seems like a gift to parents, challenging the assumption that childcare is an exclusively female domain, providing fathers with a paid opportunity to be more involved with their offspring, and crucially, allowing couples to share work responsibilities and commitments, based on their own economic and employment situation.
The idea of shared parental leave [SPL] seems to work better on paper than in reality. As Rachel Suff, employment relations adviser at the CIPD, points out, the potential benefits are often outweighed by the more complicated rules and lower pay scale that SPL offers, compared to maternity leave.
What happens after shared parental leave ends could be another factor. With just 41% of employers claiming they have childcare and flexible working policies in place, a third in the dark about the Government’s new Tax-Free Childcare scheme, and around 10% against the entire idea of SPL, things don’t seem set to be resolved anytime soon.
The reluctance of some parents to take up this opportunity could also be related to concerns about re-entering the job market further down the line. As most help with childcare applies to offspring aged 3+, such a long career break is often impossible.
As chief executive of the charity Working Families, Sarah Jackson, claims, solid government action is needed to ensure employers know about the upcoming changes to supported childcare options for their employees, or parents will still be in the dark and risk missing out.
There’s no doubt that despite being under-promoted, the concept of shared parental leave has great potential. With some tweaking, it could easily become a financially viable part of the childcare provision world, so the ball really is in the government’s court regarding its future.
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