Four years after securing parental leave it's time to get serious about putting dads at the heart of new families

If employers really want to build a more equal workplace, they should put their money where their mouth is

Jo Swinson
Thursday 04 April 2019 15:39 BST
Recent studies show that one in five men become depressed after becoming dads
Recent studies show that one in five men become depressed after becoming dads (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Hapless, hopeless dad. How many times have we all come across him? Whether it’s Homer Simpson or Daddy Pig, these portrayals reinforce the stereotype that men are incapable in the domestic sphere. The idea is that men couldn’t possibly be competent fathers who know what they’re doing. It’s unfair, false and sexist.

It doesn’t need to be this way. One of the reasons why I fought so hard to introduce shared parental leave while I was employment relations minister was because I believe dads and children deserve better. Now, we must go further.

There is nothing that compares to the bonding between parent and child in that first year of life. Study after study shows how both parents being involved in the early weeks and months of a child’s life is good for the child’s development.

Shared parental leave is good for dads. Looking after their newborn on their own is a unique learning experience. Changing nappies, pureeing food, getting a baby to sleep – none of this is rocket science. It just needs time, patience and a LOT of unconditional love. With parenting, like any other skill in life, practice makes perfect.

I found that in my own family. When our eldest, Andrew, was born five years ago, shared parental leave wasn’t available. It was this time around with Gabriel. Because Duncan and I took it in turns to be at home with Gabriel, we each had different experiences with him – I was the one helping Gabriel to learn to roll over and sit up, while Duncan was in charge of weaning Gabriel onto solid food.

The flexibility of sharing leave also meant we could divide the time whatever way suited us best. We spent a few weeks in the summer together as a four, which was a wonderful time for our family to get to know our newest member together. And it meant I could come back to work in August and September last year for my constituency summer tour and party conference season.

And, of course, shared parental leave is good for mums. Having the choice to share the leave helps reduce the impact of time out of the labour market. Women who have children earn less, are less likely to be promoted and are more likely to be placed on the "mummy track" as managers assume they are not interested in new challenges. More dads taking parental leave isn’t a silver bullet, but it’ll make employers think twice about gender-based assumptions and the division of caring responsibilities.

So, on the fourth anniversary of shared parental leave, I couldn’t think of anything better than spending the morning with dads who shout from the rooftops about being a father, and the joys and challenges it brings.

We need more men to talk about their experiences of being a dad with colleagues, friends and family. It shouldn’t be surprising to hear about men being good fathers and it’s one of the most powerful ways we can counter the harmful "hapless dad" stereotype.

The anniversary is also a good time to reflect on how we can make parenthood that little bit easier and workplaces that little bit more family-friendly.

Employers should have better training for managers so that both women and men are properly supported as they start their families. They should encourage senior management to have better balanced work lives and to talk openly about leaving early to pick up their child from school instead of pretending they’re off to a client meeting.

And if employers are serious about wanting to build a more equal workplace, they should put their money where their mouth is. They must enhance shared parental pay at the same rate they do for maternity pay because no parent should miss out on time with their baby.

It is also time that shared parental leave is extended to self-employed dads, that fathers are given an additional four weeks of use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave and for shared parental leave to be a day one right, along with the right to request flexible working.

We must demand better that just talking about this. We must act. That is why I have set out these proposals in a Bill I have brought to parliament this week. If the government wasn’t bogged down in their own Brexit mess, then they could have delivered this already. Lucky for them, the hard work is done, and all ministers need to do is back the Bill. Parents are watching.

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