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New paternity leave proposals to exclude high earners could be a step backwards for gender equality

A father’s role may have shifted massively in recent decades – from being seen as the main breadwinner or money earner in a household, to being a more active participant in family life. Yet, less than one in three new fathers in the UK currently take paternity leave.

This is despite the fact that dads today want to take a more active role in family life. Indeed, many dads say they would consider childcare as a key point when taking up a new job.

Research clearly demonstrates the benefits of new dads taking parental leave, including positive impacts on the cognitive outcomes for children and improvements in the quality of a couple’s relationship. So why the disconnect?

One of the big reasons uptake of paternity leave has been so low is because of the pay. Under the current system, dads get two weeks paternity leave paid at a statutory rate which is just shy of £150 a week. Some employers enhance this pay but it’s not mandatory. And many dads do not take advantage of this leave because of the financial implications on household budgets.

Policies should be geared towards encouraging dads’ involvement in childcare. Shutterstock

Families can also choose for both parents to share leave. Shared parental leave, which was introduced in 2015, allows dads to take more than two weeks and parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave (37 weeks of which is paid) if they meet certain eligibility criteria. But again, uptake has been minimal – thought to be a low as 2%. And one of the key reasons for this is the financial implications as it can leave many families out of pocket.

Indeed, analysis indicates that parental leave arrangements skew families’ finances in favour of new dads returning to work – even when both parents earn the same. And research shows that there would’ve been a better uptake of paternity leave and shared parental leave if new dads were paid properly.

My research also suggests some employers have failed to embrace and normalise shared parental leave in the workplace, meaning that new fathers are less likely to consider taking it.

Entrenching inequalities

Theresa May’s recent proposal to give men four weeks of paternity leave paid at 90% of their monthly salary and a further eight weeks to be paid at the statutory rate of £148.68 might sound like a step in the right direction.

But while the proposed paternity leave would be greatly welcomed by many new fathers, under the proposals high earning dads – those on more than £100,000 a year – wouldn’t be able to access the longer leave time.

The new proposals suggest that money could take the place of a dad in a child’s life. Pexels

This is concerning and has the potential to take the progress on gender equality several steps back if high earning dads are to be excluded from benefiting from paid parental leave. This is because the proposal overlooks the fact that high earners are disproportionately men and barring them would entrench the inequalities that investments in childcare are supposed to resolve.

Indeed, last year, MPs called for 12 weeks paternity leave as a solution to address the gender pay gap problem – acknowledging that gender equality and the gender pay gap problem can only be resolved if dad’s involvement in family life is improved.

Redefining gender stereotypes

So although the proposed paternity leave would be better paid in the first four weeks and has the potential to ameliorate some of the problems of shared parental leave – such as dads not qualifying for shared parental leave because they have not worked for their employer for long enough – in the long-term, such changes could actually do more harm than good.

The paternity leave proposal could also mean that shared parental leave would be replaced by the new system. All of which would promote the unacceptable position of dads being breadwinners and mothers caregivers – a position 21st-century dads (and mums) are working hard to change.

It is vital, then, that these proposals are reconsidered and that paternity leave is made available to all working dads irrespective of their earnings. This is important as gender stereotypes and societal perceptions of dads who take on a caring role will only change if everyone has a stake in childcare.