Every day a father's day

The parental leave directive offers an opportunity, but will men take it? By Ann Treneman

Ann Treneman
Saturday 14 June 1997 23:02

Today is Father's Day and the timing could not be better for New Labour, New Man, New Dad. If he exists that is. But at least we will know - eventually - because after this week's Amsterdam summit the clock will be ticking on the Social Chapter and it will be only a matter of time until a father's rights at work are officially recognised.

The Parental Leave Directive allows for parents to take three months' unpaid leave within the first eight years of a child's life. These are the minimum terms required and the Government could choose to improve on them significantly in terms of money and time. New Man (and Woman) should be toasting this with a magnum of fizzy Ribena but so far celebrations have been muted. The Equal Opportunities Commission says it cannot comment yet; the Government is not sure what will happen.

"We cannot rush into any commitments," a Department of Trade and Industry spokeswoman stressed. The process could take two years. Business must be consulted, industry prepared. Somewhere in all this parents, the subjects of the directive, seem to have been forgotten.

"Fundamentally this is an issue of family welfare," says Helen Wilkinson of the think-tank Demos. "In many ways that's the bit of the debate that has got lost. Because it came from Brussels, it is seen as a workplace concern, but basically this an issue for families."

It is also an issue that has become ensnared in the gender trap and not every family will be interested. It is not only women who think New Dad may be a myth. "How ridiculous. Thank god I'm too old for that," snorted Ray Cousins of the Greeting Card Association when asked about whether New Dad is getting any Hallmark moments these days. If he is, it is only a second or two - a percentage of a percentage of the 25 million Father's Day cards sold.

My own perusal of cards revealed dad as still incredibly active for such an old-fashioned guy: he's a huntin', shootin', fishin', boxin', footballin' type who likes malt and lager and whose wife is a real nag (and often depicted as a horse). However, there were a minority of cards for New Lad Dad with prominent cleavage and boob jokes. And there was one, rather sad, card that may have been for New Man. In it dad says: "OK son, I'm going to tell you everything I know about football." Son replies: "That shouldn't take long." The boob cards were much more popular.

"You've got to understand that this is an industry of evolution rather than revolution," said Mr Cousins. Father's Day - an American tradition that was invented by a woman in 1910 - is now worth pounds 20m in Britain. Mother's Day, on the other hand, rakes in pounds 38m.

In many ways the card industry seems to be stuck at just about the same place as business in general. Workplace culture allows little room for men to be fathers after their baby's first week of life. As one executive exclaimed when the subject of paternity leave loomed: "I draw the line there. Paternity leave will never exist as long as I'm here." Needless to say, he was a father and he had never taken time off.

Most companies would agree, off the record of course, but action speaks louder than words anyway and there has been very little of that. Only 3 per cent of workplaces have parental-leave schemes with the other 97 per cent saying there is little demand from staff, it is too expensive and the benefits do not justify the costs. Some 60 per cent of companies told Demos before the election they did not think parental leave would be on the board agenda in the next three years.

What a difference a change of government makes - boards should take a peek at Demos's new survey in which 64 per cent of the public think there should be full parental leave for men and women. Eighty per cent say family life is suffering because working hours are too long and that parental leave could improve our quality of life. The younger generation is different. Roles are less traditional and more women are working in better-paying jobs. In 1981 only one in 15 woman earned more than her male partner, a decade later that figure was one in five.

Helen Wilkinson believes that business has consistently over-estimated the cost of parental leave and under-estimated its value. Demos, whose two-year examination of parental leave will be finished next month, has done an extensive cost-benefit analysis of parental leave involving four schemes. In the first the employee pays all the costs through a student- loan-type scheme. The second involves employer and employee contributing to a "personal parental plan" (comparable to a personal pension plan) and the third has the employer picking up the bill. The most realistic is the fourth in which employer, employee and the taxpayer share the cost.

This will have companies across Britain reaching for the bottom line, but before they worry too much they should look at the facts. There is a reality gap between what is available and what is used when it comes to parental leave and the best place to see this is Scandinavia. In Norway either parent is allowed full pay for up to 42 weeks. In Sweden leave has existed since 1974 and now involves a 15-month entitlement. Payment rates are fairly high (85 per cent for two months and 75 per cent for 10 more months). Job security is absolute.

So what's the problem? Men, as it turns out. Even in Sweden - and their system is the most generous and flexible in the world - men take far less leave than women. In 1993, for instance, fathers used just 10 per cent of their parental insurance benefit. But this is much higher than most countries. Scandinavian countries have now made part of the leave attached specifically to men so they cannot "transfer" it to women.

The gender trap looms again and one suspects that parental leave will lead to at least as many battles in the bedroom as the boardroom. Certainly it seems that New Woman will be part of any decisions. Jim Parton, chairman of Families Need Fathers, likes the idea of parental leave but quickly adds: "I'm not convinced that the mother would want the father around the house for three months after the birth. After a while she'll probably be glad to see the back of him."

Demos has come up with various ways to improve the take-up rate by men. "But I really do think there is a mental leap here," says Ms Wilkinson. "And you only need to look at Sweden to see that legislation can only do so much. The real thing that has to change is the culture."

I find myself wondering how Swedes would do on the "toilet brush test". This says that whoever cleans the toilet the most holds the least real power in the household. In terms of babies, the equivalent would have to be nappies. Not the occasional nappy, but the everyday, every hour (and sometimes every 10 minutes) nappy-changing slog.

Jim Parton is keen: "We want the slog, too. We think the solution lies in the father being involved in the drudgery."

Mr Parton will be interested to see that this week Demos is hosting an entirely separate debate entitled "Men - the weaker sex?". The central question to be discussed is "Are men the new victims of the Nineties?" On the agenda is employment, crime and why boys are outperformed by girls. I notice equal pay is missing from the list (not to mention toilet brushes) but stereotyped images will probably creep in somewhere - after all greeting cards can be only the tip of the iceberg.

Parental leave should act as a corrective to these problems of male victimhood. Once men get the right to parental leave, the number of excuses they can give for not being fully involved in family life will be cut dramatically. Perhaps the DTI is entirely the wrong department to be handling an issue with such far-reaching social implications.The directive marks the first time that father's rights have been legitimised and it is a watershed. "Parenthood is no longer synonymous with motherhood, and that is an incredibly important role shift," says Ms Wilkinson.

What we need is a Minister for Men. He - for surely it must be a man - would look after the Parental Leave Directive and be charged with making sure men do indeed take up this new right to parent as full and equal partners. After all Britain does not want a New Lad for a dad, but neither can it return to the days when women stayed at home. The roles are changing, the culture will, too. New Man will replace the old, it's just a matter of time. Yes, Minister?

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