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Modern man, modern fatherhood

Shared parental leave in the UK is relatively new and it’s been an enormous change in the law

09 July 2020, at 8:45am

A rose-tinted look back at early post-war history through the medium of film and TV shows that the demarcation of familial roles and responsibilities was generally quite distinct. Mother looked after the house and the children, father went out to work and brought home the bacon.

But in recent years the evolution of parental rights has changed the equation somewhat; it’s now not uncommon to see mother go out to work while father stays at home caring for the children.

This societal change has not gone unnoticed by Han-Son Lee, founder of Daddilife.com, an online community that seeks to support fathers. In May 2019, Daddilife published research that it undertook to see what life was like for 1,200 fathers at work: “We found that 87 percent of millennial dads were active in a day-to-day role as parents… but there is still too much of a stereotype that ‘dads should just be at work’. It’s a position that does nothing for true gender balance and gender equality.”

It’s interesting that, as a 2017 story in the Telegraph noted (Wedderburn, 2017), male students dominated UK vet schools for many years: “Fifty years ago, 90 percent of veterinary graduates were male. When I qualified in 1985, the ratio of male to female was 50:50, and [in] 1988, for the first time, the number of women graduating outstripped the number of men. Now three quarters of graduates are female, and across the profession as a whole, the ratio of women to men now stands at 54:46.”
The writer – Pete Wedderburn, a vet based in Edinburgh – believes that nearly all veterinary nurses now are female and that most vets leaving the profession at the age of retirement are male.

Even so, for those men in the profession, they will no doubt be wondering about the latest state of play in the world of parental rights. Are there hurdles to their taking a greater role in the upbringing of their children?

Han-Son thinks men are lagging behind in taking time out. He says, “It’s difficult to give a precise number as not all firms track it accurately, but our research shows that up to one third of new fathers are not even taking their two weeks.”

The law

Looking at the law, Arwen Makin, senior solicitor at ESP Law, notes that an employer’s obligations to men begins before a child’s birth. She says that “employees who have a qualifying relationship with a pregnant woman have a right to unpaid time off to attend antenatal or adoption appointments”. However, she points out that these are limited to no more than two occasions and lasting no more than six and a half hours each.

It’s interesting that Han-Son finds it bizarre that this “one element of the policy, that dads-to-be are legally only entitled to go to two of the three antenatal appointments, is just madness”.

But once the baby is born, new fathers (or the non-primary care giver in same-sex couples) are entitled to two weeks of paternity leave – to enable them to care for the child and the child’s mother. This should be taken within 56 days of the birth or adoption placement and must only be taken in blocks of one or two consecutive weeks.

But there is a personal cost to taking such leave. As Arwen points out, the current weekly rate for statutory paternity pay is £151.20 from 6 April 2020, or 90 percent of the employee’s average weekly earnings, whichever is lower.

This isn’t a king’s ransom and is all employees get, unless the employer is generous and pays more contractually. As a result, Lee’s firm in his belief that the area of entitlements needs more reform – “in part that means more time, but really means improving the rate of statutory pay, as the current flat rate means that an increasing number of new dads are struggling to even take two weeks”. To back his view he quotes a June 2017 study from the TUC; it found that one in four men who became new fathers in 2016 were not entitled to any paternity leave at all, and were forced to head back to work within days – or even hours – of the birth of their child.

Statutory paternity leave itself is a relatively recent policy which Han-Son finds hard to imagine was only launched in 2003. He says “I’ve heard from hundreds, if not thousands, of new dads who all say the same thing: ‘the two weeks of statutory paternity leave simply weren’t enough’ and it meant that when they returned to work they were physically present, but mentally in a totally different place.”

But apart from statutory leave, it’s worth remembering that employees also have a right, after a qualifying period of 26 weeks of employment, to request flexible working, such as working from home. However, as Arwen highlights, “although such requests must be considered, they can be refused in certain circumstances and might not be suitable for certain hands-on roles”. Even so, where a request is made and refused, employers need to demonstrate good and fair reasons for the denial.

A relatively recent development is shared parental leave that was introduced in 2015. This leave enables a mother or adopter to bring their maternity leave to an end early and transfer any remaining leave and/or pay to the father.

However, it’s not been a roaring success, says Arwen – “take-up has been slow, but this may be due to a lack of awareness of the possibility”.

In fact, a February 2018 report on the BBC reckoned that take-up could indeed be very low. It quoted the Department for Business which said that some 285,000 couples qualified (at that time) for shared parental leave but that only 2 percent did so – well below the 8 percent that was predicted for the new right. It’s for this reason that Arwen says that employers should explain to employees that shared leave is a right for those who have been in a post for least 26 weeks by the end of the “qualifying week” – the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth.

Help new fathers to support their family

While time out of a business, for whatever reason, isn’t necessarily going to cause harm, it’s not going to help. This makes it even more important for employers to proactively think about the process of helping new parents. Arwen thinks that above all else, one of the most important things – both operationally and from an employee relations stance – “is regularly checking in with new parents to ask how they are, from a pastoral care perspective. Having a new addition to the family is often a massive change.”

Employers could also consider offering a temporary reduction in hours – salary pro rata – alongside flexible start and finishing times to help with school drop-off and pick-up of older children, for example. Employers must be consistent in the application of this to avoid discrimination claims.
Something else not to be forgotten should be that while some employers offer an enhanced maternity policy to new mothers or primary caregivers, “recent case law,” says Arwen, “has decided those same enhancements do not need to apply to shared parental leave” – although that could potentially be appealed further through the courts.

Her advice to those employers in this situation – who have an enhanced maternity package in place and who want to encourage staff to take shared parental leave further – should be to enhance the former to make it more attractive to new parents.

A happier workforce?

It’s encouraging for Han-Son that corporate attitudes are changing: “Parental leave is an area that has been a big focus area for many more enlightened companies over the last 12 months. And [many firms] have now offered far more enhanced forms of parental leave, which is hugely encouraging.”

Arwen agrees, adding that “new fathers who feel they are ‘understood’ by their employers, particularly when it comes to such a significant period of upheaval in
their lives, will often return as more engaged, positive employees”. Even so, we’re back to the thorny problem that the take-up remains low and traditional thinking is still prevalent.

While a business can benefit from proactively encouraging staff to take parental leave, should it be billed as an employment incentive? Han-Son thinks not. In his view “it’s like saying maternity leave should be part of the employment incentive”. He reckons that businesses that don’t help fathers will very soon be left looking like the odd ones out – and that will affect their recruitment and retention.

The future

Shared parental leave in the UK is relatively new and it’s been an enormous change in the law. What worries Lee is that “paternity leave is only for a set amount of time – it’s what happens after that that engrains a parent’s experience at work”.