Rob Williams: Reserving leave for fathers could unlock the potential of truly shared parenting

The pressures created by a system out of step with attitudes and expectations are enormous

In the government’s campaign to improve outcomes for children and help couples to stay together, employment legislation may seem an unlikely place to start.

But the Coalition’s proposals to increase leave available to fathers will bring big benefits for families and the children who grow up in them.

Men who take significant periods of leave in the months after the birth of their children are more likely to be involved in their care throughout their childhood. And having strong links with an involved father means a child is much less likely to underachieve at school, get into problems with drugs, alcohol, low self esteem and antisocial behaviour. The evidence on this is so clear and substantial that the only question left to ambitious policy makers is how to get men to strike a more balanced arrangement between career and family aspirations.

Reserving leave for fathers is the key to unlock the potential of truly shared parenting. Simply making maternity leave transferrable is not enough. Across Europe, allowing leave to be shared between parents is much less successful at getting men out of the office than setting aside a period of leave which is reserved for fathers on a use it or lose it basis.

This helps to explain why only a tiny 4% of fathers were expected to take advantage of the recent change in UK law which allows a mother to transfer some of her maternity leave to her partner. In truth, this change was a tinkering with the system whereas the Coalition’s proposals amount to a significant culture shift in official assumptions about the role of mothers and fathers.

This is long overdue. The real culture shift, what real men and women expect from their work and their family lives, has been happening beneath the official radar for more than three decades. Between 1989 and 2008, the percentage of men who believe that it is the “man’s role to earn the money” while the woman stays at home dropped from 32% to an historic low – 17%. And whilst other countries have reflected these changes in new systems allowing men much more time at home with their young children, we have stuck firmly to the founding principles of maternity leave, whose primary purpose was to enable women to keep their links to the workplace whilst expecting them to take on the full responsibility of caring for young children.

The pressures created by a leave system out of step with attitudes and expectations are enormous. Relationships are sorely tested by the transition to parenthood but for both parents, relationship satisfaction tends to be greater when work and caring roles are more equally shared and to be lower when roles within families are more traditionally observed. Allowing parent to share their leave flexibly holds out real prospects for happier and more stable families in the long term.

Shared parenting offers us stronger families with more educated and better adjusted children. At what cost to our business community? Well, despite what lobby groups may claim, this set of proposals holds significant benefits for employers. Women will be able to go back to work earlier. Instead of being forced to loose their employees for large blocks of inflexible time, employers and parents will be able to agree a timetable for leave which fits the needs of both family and business. Career gaps for mothers will be shorter, with much less likelihood of them dropping out of the workforce altogether or coming back in at a skill level way below their training and experience. The pool of talent from which businesses recruit will be much more fluid, adaptable and undistorted by gender based assumptions about who can be relied on to man the pumps and who will disappear when babies come along.

The research on business performance consistently shows that the low road of rigid work places and low wages is much less suited to an advanced economy that the high road of an educated workforce with flexibility and family friendly enterprise.

We may need to support small businesses to embrace the new arrangements, but we surely can’t afford to stay where we are.

Rob Williams is Chief Executive of the Fatherhood Institute