How shared parental leave is failing women

Women’s stereotypical role as primary caregivers has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with new home-schooling responsibilities being reported as having fallen predominantly on women. Shared parental leave (SPL) was supposed to be one tool for addressing the pre-existing uneven divide of childcare between men and women. However, low take-up continues to prevent the policy from achieving its aims.

SPL allows couples with new babies to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of statutory shared parental pay (ShPP) between them, at a maximum rate of £151.20 per week (£151.97 per week from April 2021).

The flexibility to split the leave offers benefits to everyone involved: couples can choose whether to stagger their leave to manage child-care or take time off together to spend time as a family, it allows partners of the mother to take more than just two-weeks’ paternity leave, and it allows women to keep a higher degree of contact with their workplace during the first year of their child’s birth if they choose to do so.

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Longer-term, by sharing the career impact of taking time out of work, SPL could even eradicate the motherhood penalty (statistically a 4-5% drop in earnings per child) and lead to a more representative proportion of women in senior positions.

Despite all these benefits, uptake of SPL remains low: only 7% of 1,000 employees with children surveyed in January 2020 had taken SPL, according to YouGov. There are multiple theories as to why, but almost certainly the largest factor is money.

The low rate of ShPP means that the primary earner (often a man) has to be the one to return to work for financial reasons; by way of illustration ShPP amounts to almost an 80% loss of net weekly earnings for someone on £40,000 gross pay a year.

This issue is made worse by the fact that many employers still offer enhanced maternity pay, but do not enhance ShPP. The Court of Appeal found that this approach was lawful in 2019, but it still has a huge practical impact. It means it can still be better financially for the mother to take the leave, in turn impacting her future earnings and potentially compounding the reason why she was more suitable to take the leave to start with.

SPL was supposed to be part of the solution to this problem. But it can only help if people actually use it, and currently using SPL means a painful financial blow at a difficult time. As a result, the potential benefits are being lost.

Individual employers can help solve this. The most important thing they can do is enhance employees’ pay for periods of SPL, matching their enhanced maternity pay policies. This removes the financial barrier to their employees taking SPL and also begins to remove expectations of which parent will take extended leave.

Ultimately, however, it is only government that can produce real change here. The abolition of separate maternity and paternity leaves, granting all employees the right to SPL from the start, might help to remove the gender stereotypes on who should take leave and might better encourage an even enhancement of pay from employers.

The government should also increase statutory pay to a more meaningful level, but that seems fanciful at the moment.

While SPL take up rates stay low, real change remains out of reach, as a flawed policy fails to bring about the change women and society need. However, this also creates an opportunity for far-sighted employers: offering favourable family-friendly policies, including enhanced ShPP, can bring the benefits of increased retention, improved female representation at higher levels, and the well-documented business benefits of diversity. And it’s the right thing to do as well.

Lisa Rix is an associate at specialist employment law firm GQ|Littler


In celebration of International Women's Day this year across the week HR magazine will be providing expert perspectives on gender equality and the expectations of women in the workplace. 

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