Where’s Dad?

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By Dr Holly Birkett, Lecturer in Organisational Studies, and Dr Sarah Forbes, Lecturer in Marketing, Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business Associates
Department of Management/Marketing, University of Birmingham

 An increase in the uptake of SPL could lead to strengthened family bonds, improved child development and increased workplace involvement for mothers.

The arrival of a child into one’s life is life changing. From a work perspective, it is often followed with mothers taking maternity or adoption leave and fathers taken paternity leave. In 2015, the coalition government made another option available to parents, shared parental leave (SPL).

This new entitlement allows families to share the time that is normally allocated for a mother’s maternity leave between both parents. It was expected that 2-8% of families would take up SPL – a worryingly low projection – but the actual take-up rate has been even lower. Our research starts to explain why this is the case and uncovers a wide variety of barriers that prevent families from taking SPL.

It seems like a simple choice for expecting parents; do we want to share the leave and both spend time with the child in the first year? In reality, the decision-making process is not that simple at all. For example, it is not a surprise to anyone that children cost money and as such, one of the first things parents think about is the financial implications. Parents considering SPL will immediately seek to understand the potential implications on their pay and for most employees SPL is not enhanced in the same way maternity leave often is. Most parents taking SPL can only expect to get paid the statutory £140.98 per week for the first nine months. The problem here is that many organisations in the UK enhance maternity pay and very few enhance shared parental pay. This acts as a golden handcuff for the mother and a barrier for the father, meaning that in many cases it would make no sense financially for parents to use SPL before their enhanced maternity leave ceases, often after four or six months.

Another key barrier experienced by parents when considering taking SPL is the way that the policy has been written. The SPL policy puts the onus on mothers to decide whether or not their family will use SPL. Interestingly, for the policy to be activated, mothers who are eligible for maternity leave (or maternity pay) would need to submit paperwork to their organisations to deduct time from their leave, allowing their partner to take SPL. This often has the effect of preventing partners from taking SPL because fathers may not feel comfortable asking their partner to reduce their maternity leave.

Even when parents overcome this hurdle they are faced with off-putting and complex bureaucracy. The sheer complexity of the application process for SPL can deter parents from actually taking it. The many forms and calculations that are involved for two parents, as opposed to one on maternity leave, is quite overwhelming.

Finally, culturally accepted maternal and paternal identities can have a strong impact on how new parents believe they should behave and what their role should be in the family. One of the main issues preventing families from taking SPL is that fathers may desire to remain the breadwinner. Being able to financially provide for their family is what affirms the identity of many fathers. Therefore, when faced with the option to take SPL, a father could see this as going against how they define their role within the family or indeed how others might define it for them.

So, the barriers are diverse and reach way beyond the small sample above. There is the policy itself, the organisation and then there are the parents, their friends and families. We are currently undertaking a large-scale national research project to understand these and the other barriers that eligible parents face as well as creating mechanisms and interventions to break them down and significantly increase the uptake of SPL in the UK. An increase in the uptake of SPL could lead to strengthened family bonds, improved child development and increased workplace involvement for mothers.

About the authors:
Dr Sarah Forbes and Dr Holly Birkett are lecturers at the University of Birmingham Business School. They co-lead the Shared Parental Leave research project which aims to improve gender equality in the workplace. Both are Associates of the  Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business.

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