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Shared parental leave: The situation in higher education institutions 

Research reveals that the lack of employer support is a major factor behind why uptake of shared parental leave (SPL) is so low within UK higher education institutions (HEI). It’s been six years since the introduction of SPL regulations in the UK, but still the uptake remains disappointingly low.

While previous research identified a number of factors why there is such low uptake of the scheme, lack of workplace support is a key factor for employees working within UK HEI.

We recently looked at SPL and breastfeeding practices in UK HEIs, and the findings suggest two key elements to the low uptake. First was the unawareness of the policy, lack of understanding of the policy and lack of support from employers. Second, the lack of support for breastfeeding mothers returning to work.

The research data was obtained from analysing 66 university policies on SPL, 35 university policies on breastfeeding, 49 survey responses, and 20 semi-structured interviews with mothers who had babies on or after 5 April 2015 (when SPL came into force).

The need for better shared leave policies:

How shared parental leave is failing women

Reform shared parental leave, urges the TUC

Pandemic highlights need for gender inclusive parental leave

Inaccessibility of universities' SPL policies

Most of the staff were unaware of the existence of the policy or lacked understanding of how the policy would work for them in practice. There is a general assumption that pregnant women would go on maternity leave and therefore information on SPL is not provided at the point where the staff notifies the employer of their pregnancy/adoption.

Although the information on SPL is found on the university’s website, there was a general assumption that staff would know where to find it, read and understand it.

However, we found that most of the policies did not have enough by way of content to enable the reader to understand how it would work in practice.

Some of the wording used in the policies was difficult to understand unless the reader is an expert. There was lack of hypothetical or practical examples for most institutions, lack of clear understanding from line manager or HR team, and for some the lack of enhanced SPL pay made SPL inaccessible to staff.

Impact of breastfeeding on SPL

The UK has no national breastfeeding legislation except for those related to health and safety at work. There is no legal requirement for employers to provide facilities for breastfeeding mothers at work. Consequently, this has led to few or no facilities for breastfeeding women in UK HEI.

Only 35 institutions have some form of published information with only few providing all round support of breaks, rooms and storage facilities. In addition to that, our survey revealed that only 16% of participants were aware of breastfeeding policy in their workplace and most interviewed indicated that there was no discussion about breastfeeding at any point before they went on maternity leave.

The survey and interview participants indicated that taking SPL would affect their breastfeeding. While SPL and breastfeeding are two separate issues, our data suggests that the inverse link between SPL and breastfeeding remain strong in workplaces with no breastfeeding support.

The way forward

It’s important that universities support and promote SPL and breastfeeding because it has the potential to achieve gender equality. Universities should proactively communicate the policies to staff when having conversations around maternity/paternity/adoption leave and develop checklist for staff and line manager to ensure that all necessary information has been communicated. 

By Ernestine Gheyoh Ndzi, senior lecturer York St John University, and Anjali Raj, lecturer York St John University