It’s not perfect legislation, but men now have the chance to take Shared Parental Leave and spend quality time with their children. GIDEON BURROWS challenges dads to embrace the opportunity, and change culture for good.
Back in 2012, when Shared Parental Leave legislation was just about still twinkle in Nick Clegg’s eye, I wrote a book called Men Can Do It.
At the time men only had their traditional two weeks paternity leave and women had a right to up to a year of maternity leave. This lop-sidedness, I argued, was one of the reasons why so few men were getting involved in baby care.
Now, for the first time following the new Shared Parental Leave legislation introduced on April 5th, men and women (or equivalent same-sex partners) have a legal right to share up to 52 weeks of parental leave between them during the first year of their child’s life.
With some caveats and exceptions, working parents can now chop and change across a year of leave, whatever their gender. After two weeks, a woman can go back to work full time, and the man will get statutory parental pay as he stays at home to look after their newborn. Or they can work half-and-half.
So the question is: will more fathers now get in on the action?
We shall see. But until the numbers prove me wrong, I remain sceptical. Because imbalanced parental leave wasn’t the only reason I found for the scarcity of men looking after their babies.
Back in 2012 I argued that maternity and parental services were skewed towards women, essentially assuming men had little to do with their children, generating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I also argued that employers and workplace colleagues tended to be culturally traditional when it came to babies: men should earn the crust, and women should stay at home. Vitally, this limited women’s pay and promotion prospects, again feeding a vicious cycle: women might as well look after the kids, because their deal at work was bound to be poorer.
I argued that our own parents, as well as the media and our wider culture, made it very difficult for men to stick their head above the parapet and be an ‘out and proud’ stay-at-home dad, or even to do it part-time.
But most of all, I argued, we men were to blame for the disparity.
Because while we may claim that being with our new babies is top of our agenda, actually doing something about it is a different matter. One in three new dads still weren’t even taking the paternity leave they were already legally entitled to. Two thirds of men said they wouldn’t take more leave even when a new 26 week entitlement to share parental leave was introduced in 2011 – and figures for take-up of that have indeed been abysmal.
It was men, I concluded then, who weren’t willing to get their hands dirty. Men weren’t taking on the hard slog (as well as the nice bits) that childcare can bring. Yet women were expected to get on with it, as they always had.
Three years on, I’m hoping to be proved wrong. Because the change in shared parenting legislation could have some interesting knock-on effects.
Employers and work colleagues are being forced to recognise that fathers have just as much right to be baby carers as mothers. That might just nudge workplace culture towards something more parent-friendly, smoothing out at least some of the inequalities women face at work.
It might even lead to high profile cases of men taking employers to court for sex discrimination, if the boss tries to prevent them taking the leave they’re legally entitled to.
And if men do take longer periods off work to look after their babies, we’ll slowly start to see more men around the place during the working week: in town, in shops, at baby singing sessions, at the swimming pool. That might just influence our cultural attitude to men as baby carers too.
We won’t look in horror, surprise or with sparkling admiring eyes at a man bottle feeding his baby in Costa Coffee. Rather, it will just be normal. And that could lead to yet more men taking the same option.
But the workplace remains only a very thin slice of the unequal pie when it comes to men and women and babycare. What about the rest? wonders the sceptic in me.
For a start, despite survey after survey showing men would like to play a bigger role in their children’s lives, when men are not at work, few of us are making good on our claim.
My survey of available research showed clearly that women still do the majority of the housework, washing, clothes buying and other baby-related jobs. And women spend far more of their own free time with their children than men do.
That’s got nothing to do with work, employers or earnings. It’s about men and women and parenting. It’s about the domestic culture in our homes.
USE IT OR LOSE IT
Nor is Shared Parental Leave the panacea many might hope, even in the workplace. Vitally, there will be no ‘ring fenced’ leave for men. We dads will earn a right to swap parental leave with our partners, but we will lose nothing if we choose not to bother.
In Iceland, Sweden and Norway men have a specific allocation for parental leave. A ‘use it or lose it’ portion that only men can take. And men do take it, in huge numbers (even if it is women who resume the bulk of the childcare once the use-it-or-lose-it period is over). The Westminster government did consider ring-fencing leave for men, but long ago dropped the idea after pressure from business leaders. I think it’s a missed opportunity.
So the question remains: will we dads allow this moment to pass us by? The truth is, men have long had a lot of wriggle room when it comes to spending time with our babies – during working hours, and outside of them. And few of us have taken the opportunity.
Why should we assume this will change with voluntary Shared Parental Leave?
NO MORE EXCUSES
Well, if there is one reason to be positive about the new rules and the parental equality it may usher in, it is that the legislation will take away one of the key excuses we men usually give for not being more involved.
We will no longer be able to pass the buck to our employers, our pay packets or the government.
Potential equality now rests firmly on our own shoulders. We alone will be responsible for making, or failing to make, good on our claim to want to spend more time with our new babies.
I’m excited to see if we will rise to the challenge.
AUTHOR BIOG: Gideon Burrows is a non-fiction author and charity copywriter. He is father of two children, aged 5 and 7, and has split every aspect of childcare equally with his wife since the oldest were born. He recounts the story in Men Can Do It, published by ngo.media and available with Gideon’s other books at http://www.ngomedia.org.uk/gideons-books/.