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Paternity Leave: A Very British Problem?

paternity leave in the UK

In these evolving times we live in, much progress has been made to adapt to the way family and working lives are changing. From flexible work hours, to working from home and having accessible HR management software, businesses understand that flexibility is key to a happy workforce.

This includes the introduction of shared parental leave to ensure men and women have more equal opportunities to take leave for care of a new child. So why then, after three years’ since it was introduced, are only 2 per cent of men taking paternity leave?

Shared Parental Leave: What’s the Deal?

In 2015 the government introduced shared parental leave, allowing couples to share 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay after having a baby. The time off can be taken either together or separately. Its introduction was widely praised for helping new parents.

Awareness Campaign

Three years on and the government blame the poor take-up of shared parental leave on a lack of general awareness. To tackle this, they recently launched a £1.5 million campaign reminding parents that “spending quality time with your child in those important first months can help you to develop a bond with your child that will last a lifetime.”

Yet sceptics believe that this is a far more rooted cultural problem.

Cultural Factors and Paternity Leave

It takes a cultural mind shift, and time, to challenge the way things have always been done. But while change cannot happen overnight, let’s look at some of the other potential barriers for paternity leave take up.

  • Tradition: Men have traditionally always been providers for families. This is deep-rooted in the way many of us have been brought up; in our homes and on TV – it’s all around us. Breaking away from traditional family values could take a generation to change.
  • Financial Burden: A study by the Harvard Business Review found that taking paternity leave would create a significant financial burden to many families, particularly fathers with lower incomes.
  • Support: While there’s procedures in place for women to return to work, from training courses to dedicated holiday planner diaries, few procedures are in place for fathers. It has also been suggested that, unlike women, men are also more likely to have their requests for flexible work rejected.
  • The Policy Itself: Another theory is that the policy itself is wrong. Experts claim that it’s not a ‘level playing field’, since mothers are given all the leave and then asked to give some to their partners. In Iceland, where a father has a personal allocated quota of leave, almost all new fathers (91%) take it.
  • Perception: Perhaps the greatest issue of all is perception. In a culture where women fight for equality and fairness, the stigma around stay at home dads and paternity leave still exist.

A study just this year found that one of the biggest reasons for fathers not taking paternity leave is “the cultural stigma of men taking time off work.” While a 2014 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that nearly a third (27 per cent) of fathers and partners suffered discrimination because of parental leave.

Paternity Leave: The Future’s Bright?

So, what more can be done to encourage fathers to take paternity leave?

Firstly, the existing policy should be compared to those in countries where take up is high, such as Iceland (91% take up), Quebec (85% take up) and Portugal (63% take up).

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, businesses need to get behind the changes and champion them. As the Harvard Business Review put it, “When Workplace Cultures Support Paternity Leave, All Employees Benefit”. This can be done by reviewing the support in place, providing part-time roles for all return-to-work parents, and tackling any discrimination seriously.

And finally, it will take a cultural shift of women and men working together to ensure equal access to parental leave.

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