Can men have it all? Parental Leave Policy in the UK

When the issue of paternity leave was raised in the House of Commons in 1979, the proposal was described by some as ‘grotesque’, ‘unrealistic, profoundly objectionable’ and ‘one which has only to be examined to see its absurdity.’ Opposing MPs claimed it would be a direct incitement to population explosion, that on leave men would earn large sums of money tax free through moonlighting and that the House would lose some of its ‘most virile and splendid Members.’  But how much progress has been made since then?

Men gained the long overdue rights to statutory Paternity Leave in 2003 as well as Additional Paternity Leave in 2011, which allows the father, or husband or partner of a child’s mother, to take up to 26 weeks additional leave. Last week it was announced that Labour is looking at plans to give new fathers a so-called ‘daddy month’, four weeks of paid paternity leave – at nearly double the current rate.  From 2015, parents will also get the option to share up to a year’s leave when they have a baby, under the Shared Parental Leave scheme pushed by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg which aims to undermine ‘Edwardian’ rules which ‘patronise women and marginalise men.’ While undoubtedly these are positive steps in the right direction, the pace of change has been slow. In Sweden, families have enjoyed the right to Shared Parental Leave since 1974.

The misconception that fathers matter less than mothers when it comes to the upbringing of children has long formed the basis of the UK’s approach to parental leave.   Proposals for a Directive on parental leave were first put forward by the European Commission in 1983 and, despite a broad consensus among member states in favour of such a measure, opposition from the previous Conservative UK Government prevented the Directive’s adoption.  In 1995 the UK further refused to accept the European Directive on Parental Leave which guaranteed fathers and mothers in employment to at least three months (unpaid) leave and as the twentieth century came to a close, the UK and Ireland were the only two European members where there was no existing legislation providing for parental leave other than statutory maternity leave.  According to a recent study in 2010 by the Fatherhood Institute, conditions for equal parenting in the UK ranked the fourth worst out of 21 countries measured, with a wider gender pay gap and less paid paternity leave than other nations.  While men in Sweden for example, are eligible for the equivalent of 40 weeks full-time paid paternity leave, based on the average salary, their British counterparts are entitled to two weeks’ statutory leave, the equivalent of just two days at the average pay.

The underdeveloped provisions mean few British fathers are taking advantage of such measures. Just 55% of fathers take off the fortnight, whilst a third do not take any of their statutory leave. Similarly, official figures show just 0.8% of eligible dads took advantage of Additional Paternity Leave in the first year of operation in 2011-2012 and only 1.4% in 2012-13.  While men increasingly want to spend time with their children, they do not receive the same flexibility in the workplace to address child care requirements.  Research by the Fatherhood Institute in 2010 found that 15% of fathers had not known about their entitlement to Paternity Leave and another 8% had been illegally told by their employer that they were not to take it.  Although in Britain only one in five families has a father who is the sole earner, women’s employment remains undervalued and a pay gap exists between male and female earnings, meaning it often makes financial sense for men to return to work if they are the higher earner.  According to a 2009 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission some 45% of new fathers said they did not take paternity leave. Of those, 88% said they would have liked to have done so, and 49% said they could not afford it.  As it stands, fathers are entitled to just £138.18 a week – the equivalent to £3.45 an hour, well below the minimum wage.  Such financial considerations are preventing new dads, especially low paid fathers, from taking time off because they simply cannot afford to take leave on such a reduced income.

This does not mean fathers are not interested in taking leave.  In 2005, when the idea of Additional Paternity Leave was suggested, the government estimated that only between 4-8% of new fathers would take it up, yet a survey by the Fatherhood Institute found 81% of men supported the new opportunity.  Only 16% said they would not take any of the leave, with 21% keen to take the whole six months, and another 47% interested in taking between one and five months.  Where men would take Additional Paternity Leave, 55% stated this was because they want to look after their baby themselves, with 43% seeing this as benefiting their child. Two out of three of all participants believed they would be as competent as their partners in looking after the baby.

Ultimately government policy is moving in the right direction to encourage and facilitate more equal caring and earning and is providing opportunities for men not available even a decade ago.  However, given that one Conservative minister described the recent Shared Parental Leave scheme as a ‘crazy’ proposal, whilst other critics claim parental leave schemes are wasted on men who are ‘useless’ when a baby is born, there is much that hasn’t changed since 1979.  While old concepts of man as breadwinner and woman as home-maker are not what most couples aspire to, for many families the material situation reinforces traditional male and female roles and perpetuates the underlying expectation that women are the ones who take responsibility for childcare.  Even labelling new proposals for paternity leave as ‘daddy month’ implies that with regards to childcare, the father is a temporary ‘helper’ for the month, not expected to be fully competent or equally responsible when, ultimately, he returns to work and the mother is left holding the baby. These cultural expectations are not only outdated but actively hamper men, women and children. Fathers and children miss out on time spent together and mothers are forced to assume the role of primary carer, which reinforces gender inequality in both the home and workplace. Overall, evidence suggests that while fathers are able and willing to contribute more substantially to family and home life, society does not fully expect or enable them to be equally responsible parents.  Both structural frameworks and cultural attitudes together must change this.