Shared parental leave is a sign of progress - and one that businesses should do more to welcome

Why should the "uncertainty" of whether an employee is going to have a baby hover only over women?

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The Independent Online

Last week, it was reported that mothers and fathers will be able to share parental leave under Coalition proposals expected to be formally announced next month. The current system of maternity allowance will apparently be changed to “flexible parental leave” and will allow fathers to take most of their baby’s first year off work and claim benefits if the mother returns to employment. 

This is a sensible and necessary proposal. After all, it’s widely accepted these days that a father is just as well placed as a mother to care for his baby, so why shouldn’t he have the same opportunity to do so?

In its 2011 consultation on modern workplaces, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills highlights the benefits both parts being involved in a child’s upbringing has for families and wider society. It worries that “in Britain we retain a highly gendered, inflexible approach to parental leave rights, one that entrenches the assumption that the mother must be the primary carer in the early stages of a child’s life.”

Under the new proposal, mothers will only be required to take the first two weeks of leave for health reasons, after which they may transfer their leave to fathers. This will help address the imbalance in parental care that the BIS condemns.

Perhaps most importantly, flexible parental leave will make it easier for women to return to work after having children. Too often, a woman feels forced to choose between raising a family or having a career; the introduction of the shared allowance will give both partners more choice in how to balance their employment and parental duties. This, in turn, will help fight discrimination against women in the workplace.

The new scheme can’t come too soon - but it won’t in fact be introduced until 2015, following a disagreement in the Cabinet about how shared parental leave would affect businesses.

Opponents argue it will harm businesses at a time when many are already struggling, but it’s difficult to see why this would be the case.

As the father can only take leave if the mother returns to employment, the overall amount of time taken off work and benefits paid shouldn’t change – so impact on businesses should be minimal. No more time will be taken off, the only difference is that some of the time taken will be from male employees instead of female.

Are opponents to the scheme suggesting that male workers taking leave is somehow more damaging to business than female workers taking leave? And if this is the case, is their reluctance to introduce shared leave a reluctance to address this imbalance?

But she might have a baby...

In a video on the Telegraph website, Dr Adam Marshall, Director of Policy and External Affairs at the British Chambers of Commerce, explains opposition to the new system.

He starts, “When parents take time off to care for new arrivals, very often it creates uncertainty for businesses...” Of course, when he says “parents”, he might as well be saying “mothers”, as under the current rules, mothers are entitled to a much more significant amount of leave than fathers. And it’s precisely the kind of “uncertainty” Marshall refers to here that results in discrimination against women in the workplace.

Because it isn’t only pregnant women or new mothers who are discriminated against when it comes to employment; it’s all women of potential childbearing age. The BIS consultation mentioned above recognises a bias against women in the recruitment process owing to employers’ concerns over maternity rights, and stresses the need to promote maternal employment.

The unfortunate truth is that a woman applying for a job or  promotion may be overlooked in favour of her male peers because of the perceived “uncertainty” about her family plans.

It takes both a man and a woman to make a baby, but she is the one who is legally entitled to extended maternity leave. Better to hire a man, then. The only way to stop employers from systematically discriminating in this way is to level the playing field: let either new parent take leave. Let the “uncertainty” of parental leave hover over men as well as women.

Director of the British Chambers of Commerce John Longworth explained opposition to the proposal in more detail in his comments on the Queen’s Speech in May. He expressed concern over the practicalities of the scheme. “If shared parental leave is introduced,” he said, “the government must ensure that the possible patterns that can be requested are limited to reduce complexity, by limiting requests to chunks of one month or more.” This is a reasonable proviso, and one that can no doubt be easily written into the proposal, if it hasn’t been already.

Family first

It seems unlikely that many couples would wish to “tag-team” parental leave on some sort of less-than-monthly rotation system anyway. Overall, it’s hard to see how the system of shared leave would bring “fiendish complexity and huge uncertainty for employers across Britain,” as Longworth rather melodramatically argues.

Under the new proposal, businesses will run exactly as they do now, except some male employees will take parental leave and an equal number of female employees will not. The shift won’t be colossal; most couples will opt to keep things as they are, with the mother taking leave. The BIS estimates that only 13,500 families would benefit economically from transferring leave from the mother to the father.

Delaying this proposal because of alleged harm to business adds an unnecessary stumbling block to greater sexual equality in the workplace and at home. Yes, parental leave won’t magically close the gender gap - many more women than men will take parental leave, and women will still face discrimination in terms of employment opportunities, career progression, and pay - but it’s a vital step towards the family-friendly society the Coalition promised.