Is Shared Parental Leave "maternalistic" by design? And if so, who exactly is being left out? DR EMMA BANISTER and DR HELEN NORMAN examine the need for policy makers to include fathers in family-friendly initiatives.
First published in Manchester Policy Blogs
The benefits of active involvement of fathers in children's lives reach beyond the wellbeing and happiness of children and the family itself, supporting goals of gender equality.
This concern with fatherhood and the practice of fathering has not escaped the attention of policy makers. The introduction of Shared Parental Leave (SPL) in 2015 aimed to support and encourage fathers to be more involved in their child’s upbringing. It is something Fathers Network Scotland and the Fatherhood Institute and argues for. Also, the Women and Equalities Committee’s 2017 ‘fathers and the workplace’ inquiry emphasised the need to gather expert knowledge regarding fathers’ experiences in the workplace.
Who fits the normative model?
However, the various debates and initiatives surrounding fatherhood risk being overly focused on a particular normative model of family – that is featuring two parents that are partnered, heterosexual and professionally employed.
This focus risks the omission of knowledge about, and support for, fathers (and their partners) who don’t ‘fit’ this mould.
Does the current focus on fathers and work risk ignoring those fathers who for whatever reason (e.g. structural [un]employment factors, fragile relationships, non-normative relationships) don’t fit with the current support available for fathers? (continues below)
The following points connected with the Share Parental Leave policy illustrate these issues:
Two employed parents
SPL is available to families where both parents are employed. Therefore, it omits families where one or both parents are unemployed or self-employed. This has not escaped the notice of campaigners including Parental Pay Equality and Pregnant Then Screwed, who included constraints around eligibility to SPL as part of their demands for the March of the Mummies. It is clear that if SPL is to inform equality in the home and the workplace it needs to be open to all, not based on structures within the employment market, with individuals’ eligibility based on not only their own work status but their partner’s also.
Maternalistic by design
The model features a maternalistic design. Unless the mother agrees otherwise, the parental leave taken will be in the form of maternity leave. There are a number of potential issues with this, not least what it signals (e.g. that the normative choice is for mothers to take most of or all of the leave); it can also create particular issues in cases where the parents are not in a partnership together. Campaigners argue for so-called “Daddy leave” whereby a specified amount of leave is allocated to the father or mother/main adopter’s partner on a ‘take it or lose it’ basis as is the case in Scandinavian parental leave models.
There is also an on-going issue around knowledge and awareness of ‘family friendly’ work policies and recognition of the need to support dads in the workplace . While some organisations lead the way in developing workplace policies and publicising parents’ entitlements, the picture is particularly challenging in some areas (see for example Fathers Network Scotland research focused on fathers working in SMEs).
Working Families’ modern family index saw the introduction of the notion of the ‘fatherhood penalty’ whereby fathers were reported to be considering stalling or side-lining their careers in order to identify roles which they can better combine with family life. In considering the impact on non-normative family types it is clear that some organisations/sectors are recognising men as fathers more proactively than others. In the case of SPL this can lead to huge differentiation in SPL enhanced pay, which tends to inform take up rates.
Fragile Fathers ignored
Esther Dermott (2008) coined the term ‘fragile fathers’ to refer to those for whom temporal, financial, biological or emotional links with their children are non-existent or ‘under threat’. In their recent review of UK research focused on British dads, the Fatherhood Institute lamented the lack of research focused on those fathers who parent their child alone or for part of the time, and the limited distinction between “between birth fathers and ‘social’ fathers (stepfathers, mothers’ boyfriends, adoptive fathers, foster fathers, and so on).”
Of course, this hasn’t escaped the notice of organisations and groups focused on promoting involved fatherhood. Indeed Fathers Network Scotland’s #DadUp campaign aims to recognise the diversity of contemporary fatherhood with director Samantha Pringle commenting on the disparities that can exist depending on income as well as other circumstances: “not all families have a choice as to whether dads are as involved in the early years as they could be”.
It is clear that if we are to truly understand and support men as fathers (both at home and at work), we need to recognise the extent to which both individual and structural factors play a part in impacting parental roles.
For example, by introducing a scheme based on parents’ employment status do the government risk prioritising those families most likely to already have supportive mechanisms in place? Are certain fathers hindered from practising involved fatherhood? How do fragile fathers construct their roles and identities within the home? What particular challenges are faced and are there implications for gender (in)equality?
It is clear more research is needed to discover more about how ‘fragile fathers’ navigate fatherhood, work and home life.
Are you a self-employed dad? In the light of the unequal rights to leave and pay, Fathers Network Scotland would like to interview you as part of new research with the University of Edinburgh Business School. Please get in touch if you'd be happy to share your experience for an hour.
Are you interested in pursuing doctoral study into "fragile fathers"? Check out original article for details.
Dr Emma Banister is Senior Lecturer in Consumer Research, at Alliance Manchester Business School. Her research focuses on consumer research with the potential for societal impact with a particular focus on families, fathers and gender equality.
Dr Helen Norman is a Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on fathers and fatherhood, the gendered division of labour and gender inequalities in work and family life.