Shared parental leave arrives in the UK - why is it being perceived as a burden?

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez April 6, 2015
Shared parental leave allows couples to split the 50 weeks of leave after having or adopting a baby, but if equality is seen as the desired outcome, why aren't businesses welcoming the move?


We are told time and time again by big business and the tech industry that diversity and equality are a top priority for the future of work, because a more balanced workplace not only makes for a nicer place to work, but a more profitable place to work. The idea being that different ideas from a diverse group of people challenges the norm, which is a good thing. New ideas, new opportunities.

However, with shared parental leave arriving in the UK this week, it was surprising to me that it has been given a decidedly lukewarm reception. For example, the Institute of Director's deputy director of policy, Alexander Ehmann, said:

The proposed system is considerably more complex and unwieldy than the current laws and employers will - once again - have to absorb the cost of adapting and implementing this new system.

The group, which represents company directors in the UK, also said that the plan was a “nightmare”.

More on this later, but let me just say now that this response, to me, represents everything wrong with how companies view employees and the corporate structures that they are expected to work within. The importance of flexibility and choice is being ignored.

But first I just want to highlight why this topic is of importance to diginomica, as it could easily be disregarded within the digital field. There are huge concerns around 'bro-culture' and sexism within the technology industry, for one, which shared parental leave could go some way to rectify (if it's adopted correctly). Not only this, but there are increasingly complex HR processes to think about, which we know is somewhat of a 'hot topic' in software. Again, shared parental leave adds to that complexity. And finally, flexibility in employee networks is playing a huge role in the virtual sourcing of workers – this sort of legislation has an impact on these networks.

So what exactly is shared parental leave? Whilst mothers still have to take two weeks full maternity leave under UK law, the remaining 50 weeks can now be split between two parents however they see fit, as long as sufficient advance notice is given to their respective employers. Not only this, but the 37 weeks of statutory parental pay can be shared, taken at the same time, separately, or in a number of blocks of time.

This has the potential to hugely impact how employers view their employees. For example, if taken seriously by men in the workplace, employers will no longer be able to view women as potential 'ticking baby time bombs', as men now have the same rights as women to take extended leave. Not only this, but it takes some of the burden off of women to be the sole carer and gives them the legal tools to put some of the responsibility on their partners.

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These progressive rules have worked well in Scandinavia and have gone some way to balance the dynamic between men and women in the workplace – something that companies frequently say that they want.

However, you do a quick trawl on Twitter and on Google and it's easy to see that companies and those interested in HR are not welcoming this new corporate equality with welcome arms. In fact, most seem to issuing warnings, talk about it as a challenge and very few mention the possible benefits.

The complaints include a view that this will be an increased burden for small businesses, which now have to think about parental leave policy for their male and female employees; big businesses that offer enhanced pay for maternity leave are now worried about absorbing the cost for men as well as women; there is a fear from HR-driven sects that having to understand the situation of an employee's partner and their employment, which is likely to be outside of their company walls, will add an unprecedented level of complexity; and there appears to be a level of anxiety from people about losing skills from the male employee pool for a lengthy period of time.

It's interesting to me that because men may want to take some time off to be with their child after it is born, this is now a “nightmare” situation. Speaks to the levels of sexism within corporations doesn't it?

'We can just about manage with women taking some time off, but god forbid men want to do the same.'

In theory, if the time is being shared, it should all balance out shouldn't it? It's not as if the government is saying men and women get EQUAL parental leave, it's the same amount of time being shared between two people. If anything, it should take some of the pressure off, given that if there are important projects or events coming up at work, couples can now work out a way to allow for that. It should allow women to keep there toe in the workplace if handled correctly.

I've got some doubts about how many men will actually take up this offer, however – all it will take is a couple of men in a company to have kids and not take any time off, for it to be seen as 'not the thing to do'. For this to work in companies, the company itself has to imbed it into the culture of the workplace. It has to make it clear that it is ENCOURAGED for men to take time off if they want to. If companies genuinely believe that equality in the workplace is a good thing, this is absolutely what they should be doing.

I have spoken to a couple of people about shared parental leave today and surprisingly women are equally unconvinced about the policy. For example, I spoke to someone – who I will keep anonymous – that is very senior and has raised kids, but received the news of shared parental leave with hesitation. Why? Not because she didn't think it was right for men to get equal leave, but because it's another group of people at work to worry about – how will we fill skills gaps for men and women? It seems that managing skills and filling positions and finding cover and retaining staff is tricky enough when just worrying about women.

However, I would hope that given that because leave can now be shared, if used cleverly, gaps in capability may

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be easier to manage given that women and men can jointly take responsibility for raising a baby. In my mind, men's skills shouldn't be more valuable than women's skills – if the onus of responsibility was genuinely placed on both, and it was an expectation to take time off on both parts, then surely teams would have gaps for a shorter period of time?

Most people I have spoken to also don't believe that men will want to actually take any time off, which I find surprising.  I don't know, maybe I'm being too optimistic about the law's potential...

There also appears to be a view that women currently abuse the maternity leave system (for example, getting jobs when pregnant, taking the leave and then quitting at a later date), and there is a fear that men will do the same. I have heard these stories first hand, but equally I have heard of women being sidelined when pregnant, even if they decide to pay huge childcare fees and get back to work as soon as possible, because of the fear that they will get pregnant again. Wouldn't this limit that situation and make women feel more valued at work, motivating them?

Jo Swinson, the minister for employee relations, sums up nicely how this new system SHOULD work and that the fears and negativity being perpetuated are simply a result of resisting change and a new style of work. Swinson has said:

“For employers, I believe this is a real opportunity for workplaces to embrace the benefits of flexible working. Yes, it’s true that more dads will be taking time out of work – but it also means mums can come back to work earlier if they want to. Plus, unlike maternity leave, employees can stop and start Shared Parental Leave and return to work for key periods and projects.

“Both mothers and fathers can maintain a strong link to the workplace whilst playing a full part in the vital first months of their child’s life; the policy also has an increased provision for "in-touch" days so that employees can stay updated on key developments at work before their return, or even phase their return with a period of part-time working.”

My take

I've written about sexism in the workplace before and I have argued that laws such as this would go some way to help balance things out. However, I think I was probably a bit naïve in my views. I've not spoken to a single person today that simply has a positive take on this law – which I did initially.

The conclusion that I have come to is that the relationship between a company and its employees doesn't work in the right way anymore, for most. If companies just view their women as a skill or a capability that delivers an ROI, which will be lost if they go on maternity leave, then to me it's not surprising that women aren't rushing back to work or are trying to climb the ladder. Equally, if men are seen as a more reliable resource, no wonder they are being paid more and promoted above women?

It's also no wonder to me that people are beginning to throw away these benefits in favour of virtual networks or platforms – such as Uber – which basically offer nothing in return to workers, except flexibility without judgement. An Uber driver can work one hour a day or 60 hours a week, but they get no benefits in return. But that seems to be okay for people and it is predicted that these virtual talent pools will become increasingly popular.

However, what if a company viewed men and women equally, gave them a stake in the business, offered them flexibility, made them feel more than just an employee 'number' or a capability that can be replaced? This is why more and more skilled people are going freelance – the benefits of employment don't outweigh the flexibility benefits. Corporate focus on returns, in my opinion, has left employees feeling like they're dispensable and many don't feel like the benefits of full-time employment, without much flexibility, is worth it.

This may sound like I've gone off on a tangent, but I see it two sides of the same coin. What should be seen as an important step towards equality and improving everyone's working environment, is instead seen as a hindrance because it doesn't work within the existing corporate structures. If flexibility was a given, and men and women equally felt valued in a company, this would be a useful legal tool to allow employers and employees to plan properly.

My view: if you want your employees to be happy professionally, you need to care about their personal lives too. A big part of this is flexibility, get it wrong and you will be losing out on valuable employees. In my eyes, the most successful and sustainable businesses will be the ones that can attract and retain top talent. Making HR policies like shared parental leave a 'taboo', will do you no favours.