Mary Ann Sieghart: Get new fathers to stay at home with the baby and we all gain

We'll know equality has arrived when we ask a man 'what will you do after the baby is born?'

Share

Imagine you're interviewing a 30-year-old woman for a job. She got married a year ago, and there's this enormous question in your mind. Not only do you dare not ask it – the law prevents you from asking it. So instead you think, "Great CV. Terrific personality. But I think I'd better hire the male candidate instead."

This happens in workplaces all over the country. And it happens because our system of parental leave has been based on the premise that it is mothers, not fathers, who bring up children. Employers are worried that women will take ages off work when they have babies or not come back afterwards, so they either don't hire or don't promote them. By the time a woman becomes pregnant, she is usually earning less than her partner, and it makes more sense for her to stay at home after the baby is born. If she goes back to work, she suffers the same discrimination all over again, and it becomes worse with each successive baby. No wonder women topple off the career ladder when they reach childbearing age.

So imagine if it were different. Imagine if men were just as likely to take time off as women. In one swoop, there would be much greater equality at work as well as in the home. Well, it may happen, and surprisingly the impetus is coming from a Conservative-led government.

"Flexible parental leave" sounds like one of those jargon phrases that spatter the pages of "Human Resources Weekly". But this barely noticed ingredient in the Queen's Speech will do much more for equal rights than gay marriage. It is the most powerful way both to help women at work and to ensure that the next generation is happier, healthier and more successful. The key is to allow and encourage men to be more active fathers.

We all know how well girls and young women are doing: outperforming boys and young men at school, university and in the early years of the labour market. But there is a dramatic fall-off as soon as they start to have children.

It's not what parents of either sex want. Today's young adults believe in equality. Women are used to succeeding at work and don't necessarily want to give it all up as soon as they have a baby. Men want to spend more time with their children. Both want a system that at least allows them to be equal parents if they choose to be.

All the evidence shows that this helps society too. If fathers take parental leave, their families are more likely to stay together. Even if the couple split up, the father is more likely to remain involved with his children. And the children tend to behave better, achieve more at school and have higher self-esteem. Both fathers and mothers declare themselves happier too. Meanwhile, women are less likely to fall behind at work. That's good for them and for the economy, as their talents are being properly used.

Since last year, fathers have been allowed to share much of the parental leave to which mothers are entitled. This in itself is progress; before, they were restricted to just two weeks off straight after the birth on less than the minimum wage. But the take-up has been low – only a quarter of eligible men are availing themselves of the right according to statistics out today – because the scheme has been inflexible, poorly paid and barely publicised. Most important though, none of the leave, apart from the initial fortnight, has been specifically reserved for fathers.

Experience in other countries shows that fathers don't tend to take leave if it is merely an option. When shared parental leave was introduced in Norway in the 1990s, only 2-3 per cent of men used it. Then the government reserved four weeks to be used only by fathers. That has been extended to 10 weeks, and by 2008, 90 per cent of fathers were using it.

Britain's new provisions, to be brought into law next year, haven't yet been spelled out. But it looks as if fathers will be given an extra four weeks' paid leave on top of the two weeks' paternity leave. And they will be able to share the mother's entitlement much more flexibly. For instance, both parents will be able to take time off together, which isn't allowed now. So if a mother wants to go back to work and hand the baby over to the father, she can spend a week or two showing him how it's done. And if the employer agrees, parents will be able to reduce their hours rather than deserting work altogether, or take the leave in several short blocks rather than one long one.

Ah, the employer. Whenever we talk about maternity leave or parental leave, we hear that it is terrible for business. Well, it is certainly complicated – and the Government's promise to simplify the system is welcome. But if employers want to retain their best workers, it is surely in their interest to help make it possible for work and family life to coexist.

If fathers start asking for more time off once their babies are born, that inconvenience will be entirely offset by mothers returning to work more quickly. In fact, businesses whose employees are mainly female will find these new proposals actually advantage them. And the new flexibility should help employers too.

 

We heard the same complaints when Labour introduced the right for parents of young children to request flexible working. Yet it has been accommodated with the minimum of hassle in the vast majority of cases. If anything, employers have found that staff who are allowed to work flexibly are more productive and less likely to leave.

Next year's legislation will extend this right to all employees. Together with flexible parental leave, it should eventually change the working culture so that fathers are no more embarrassed than mothers to ask for time off or for different hours when they have family responsibilities. Almost all of us will go through a period of working life when, as parents, we need some accommodation. It won't just be women.

That will be great for fathers, for mothers, for their children and for society. It could wreak a real transformation. We'll know the change has finally come when we automatically ask expectant men, "So what are you going to do after the baby is born?"

 

m.sieghart@independent.co.uk / twitter.com/MASieghart

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth