Flexible working: dads want choice, too

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Flexible working, particularly in relation to child care, is heavily skewed towards mums. HR magazine editor Arvind Hickman argues a shift in employer attitudes is needed ahead of next year's shared parental changes.

Recently, I met up with a business associate at the Brockwell Lido for lunch. When we entered the bright, airy cafeteria the noise of toddlers, babies and stay-at-home mums was instantly deafening: “Great choice for a business meeting,” I thought.

The waitress told me this scene is a daily occurrence at the Lido café, and who could fault mums for it. But one thing that was noticeably absent from the cafe, until I had arrived, was the presence of men.

Why is it that women disproportionately take on the primary parenting role? The short answer is that current legislation and societal norms are heavily geared towards mothers assuming primary child care. And, according to our report on flexible working, dads aren’t happy about the lack of flexibility.

A recent study, by the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), found fewer than 10% of new fathers take more than two weeks of paternity leave. This figure drops to only 2% for male managers, citing greater pressure to return to work early.

Worryingly, a quarter of men don’t take any time off after the birth of their child, missing out on those magical early days of a newborn's life.

Aside from workplace pressure, poor pay is cited as a huge disincentive after the two-week statutory paternity period.

New shared parental legislation, being introduced in April 2015, means that men and women will be able to choose how they split parental leave. However, our report and the ILM study shows that flexibility alone will not lead to more even parental care.

Employer attitudes that discourage men from requesting time off for child care need to change, and here's the reason why: dads want choice and flexibility, too.

Workplace flexibility is an economic issue, not a gender issue. The old-fashioned gender stereotype about men being the breadwinner is not a reality in many households today. 

Latte papas

In some countries, this shift towards more stay-at-home dads is well underway. In the oft-quoted beacon of gender equality Sweden, parents can share 480 days of parental leave per child – 390 days of which is paid at 80% of salary. It’s a system I have personally benefitted from as my child is half Swedish and spent his first six months there.

This has led to Swedish dads, known locally as ‘latte papas’, taking 24% of parental leave in 2012. Sure, it's not quite ‘equality’, but a split that is currently unimaginable in the UK. Importantly, it provides families choice, and while the parental split may never be equal it will at least be fair.

While it is difficult to compare the business landscape of a social democracy to the firmly capitalist UK, a workplace culture that encourages dads to share parental leave benefits parents, business and society. 

It allows mums to ease back into work more seamlessly and ensure their careers are not halted by motherhood, if they so choose. It also allows businesses to retain talented individuals that might otherwise be lost to parenting. Finally, it allows dads to no longer feel they are missing out.

How successful the UK’s new shared parental rules will be remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: dads want workplace flexibility, and let's hope business rises to this challenge.

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