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Shared parental leave is a nice idea – but will it actually work?

Parenting isn’t just a day off work. Shutterstock

According to NatCen research, British fathers are among the worst in Europe at making time for their families.

Spending huge amounts of time at work is seen as a sign of discipline and commitment, while fathers who choose to spend more time with their families are often forced out of their (full-time) jobs. Their departure, however, carries more stigma than women’s leaving might.

This is a ridiculous situation. Women have long been expected to take more time off from work to care for children (or other dependants) than men – and they still do. This practice has become a major problem for the “female worker”; wary of losing employees, employers often refrain from hiring or promoting women.

As long as men take little or no time off to care for their families while women take a lot more, the pattern can be expected to persist. To put it another way, the costs of having children are still disproportionately borne by all women, while the benefits of producing generations of future workers are shared equally.

On the face of it, the government’s new Shared Parental Leave scheme, which will come into force later in 2014, offers an appealing solution.

Game change?

The government’s stated aim for the policy is

To create a new, more equal system which allows both parents to keep a strong link to their workplace.

Among other things, the scheme will allow mothers to return to work more quickly by handing over unused maternity leave days to fathers at any point after the initial two-week recovery period; parents will be able to choose how to split leave days, and will be entitled to the same rights that would have applied had they been at work, with the exception of pay. That notwithstanding, fathers will retain their right to a two-week ordinary paternity leave.

To be sure, the Children and Families Act, of which the new Shared Parental Leave regulation is a major feature, is a well-meant piece of legislation, intended to give parents more job security and more control over family life. One of its main virtues is that it not only grants fathers (or the other parent) the equal right to be with their newborns (or adopted child), but also affords children time at home with both parents.

This could reshuffle working parents’ opportunities and constraints, and transform the aspirations and expectations of both parents and employers. Granting fathers access to more paid (and job-protected) time with their children could help redistribute caring and paid work in the family; meanwhile, a greater number of fathers spending more time with their families could help form new norms for contemporary fathering and masculinity.

Our employment practices and decisions about balancing work and family arise from the interplay of policies, economic structures, cultural norms, and historic trajectories. Different institutional arrangements shape people’s lives very differently, but by treating men as equally adequate and likely caregivers, the new approach to sharing parental leave could be a major advance for gender equality (it could also enable same-sex couples to balance working-family life on a more equal basis).

But outside the UK, of course, these ideas are not new. Similar policies took shape 40 years ago in countries such as Sweden and Slovenia, whose governments endorsed (in principle) the notion that both mothers and fathers could and should care for their children on equal terms – arrangements that, in law at least, persist today.

Rights and responsibilities

But the design of laws is every bit as important as the intentions behind them – and four decades down the road, we can now judge how successful Sweden and Slovenia’s initial equal leave strategies were. The evidence is not good: fathers who chose to take leave were few, and increases were slow: 7-9% in Sweden, and 1-5% in Slovenia.

This is a sign that the UK government’s light-touch solution probably won’t work, for exactly the same reasons it ultimately fell flat in Sweden and Slovenia. By merely presenting parents with rights, not incentives or requirements, those countries’ initial approaches failed to engage parents in voluntarily sharing leave.

Framing parental leave as a joint right does little to increase the chances of parents actually sharing it more equally; indeed, some see a rebalancing towards fathering as a mother’s loss. For a feminist who believes in a more equitable division of labour in the family, arguments that many women do not want to share leave with men are disheartening to say the least – to say nothing of the sight of women who choose to return to work early being derided as bad mothers in the court of public opinion.

If we want to generate more fundamental change, opening up freedom of choice is not enough. As things now stand, parents tend to shy away from sharing parental leave. In the Nordic countries, this was the catalyst for introducing so-called “daddy quotas”, which allocated specific leave time solely for fathers. While those laws were initially introduced in the 1990s, we’re already starting to see their profound impact on parenting practices.

In these countries’ experience, explicitly earmarking leave for fathers and introducing a gender equality bonus for those who share leave more equally significantly increased fathers’ take-up of available leave. A snowball effect counteracted the stigma attached to fathers taking more time off, and the time working fathers spent with their children increased.

The British government’s failure to propose a more forceful “use it or lose it” structure, designed to create incentives and not just rights, means this well-intentioned effort to de-gender childcare rings hollow.

If the government is serious about improving people’s lives, it needs a clearer and more committed vision of how a good and sustainable society would look, not just a commitment to choice. The formula is simple: the better the state and employers both care for their people with concrete and clearly articulated support, the better people will respond.

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