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Getting to grips with shared parental leave

Shared parental leave offers a tantalising opportunity for true equality between working parents.

Biology has often been blamed for inequality in the boardroom. The fact that women have to take time out to give birth, and then often to look after the baby, was used against them to justify the lack of women at the top. But as of 1 April, this perceived barrier will be removed, thanks to the introduction of shared parental leave legislation (SPL), which will give men and women almost equal access to parental leave.

Under the new law, couples are able to divide almost all of the traditional maternity entitlement between them. The only exception is the first two weeks, which mothers legally have to take off to recover from the birth. Parents can take the leave separately, at the same time or overlap it, depending on what suits them and their circumstances. It doesn’t have to be taken all in one go either. As a result, employees can return to the office for an all-important client pitch or deadline and then go back on leave.

It’s no surprise that Jo Swinson, minister for employment relations and consumer affairs and women and equalities minister, is a fierce proponent of the new law. While she admits that take-up of additional paternity leave has been low, Swinson predicts SPL will fare much better. “One of the biggest differences is the flexibility of the shared parental leave policy,” she says. “[Parents] weren’t able to take leave at the same time under additional paternity leave.”

She does have some personal experience. She gave birth to her first son in December 2013 and returned to her ministerial responsibilities after six months of maternity leave. She says it is difficult for couples if one partner has to return to work when the baby is only two weeks old. “Personally, for me, I feel like two weeks after a birth is incredibly soon to suddenly not have the whole family around.”

Swinson hopes the new legislation will help to address some men’s concerns that taking more time off will harm their career prospects. “There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggests men often feel like they have to keep quiet about their family responsibilities,” she says.

However, Hayley Fisher, people director of software company Thomsons Online Benefits, isn’t quite convinced the new law will go far enough in helping remove the stigma associated with being a family man. “I’ve heard lots of comments like: ‘most men aren’t going to do this anyway, are they?’ and, ‘it’d be career suicide if people take more time off’. The cultural acceptance of it is going to be a huge challenge for HR teams,” she believes.

Lloyds Banking Group is tackling this by raising awareness of male role models who are successfully juggling high-flying careers and family life. “This will include men at all levels so that their colleagues can see that it is possible for men to take time out and return without a negative impact,” says Fiona Cannon, group director of diversity and inclusion at Lloyds. “We are also encouraging our male employees to join our parenting network, where we can offer support and advice, and connect them with other working fathers so they can share their experiences.”

Deloitte, one of the ‘big four’ professional services firms, also considers itself a trailblazer in terms of the benefits it offers to working parents. It is offering attractive enhanced shared parental pay to match its maternity and paternity pay packages. Employees with more than two years’ service will be entitled to 16 weeks on full pay, 10 weeks half-pay and 13 weeks statutory pay.

The firm hasn’t just got to deal with the financial burden, says Stevan Rolls, UK head of HR at Deloitte. “It’s definitely going to be a massive pain, there’s no question of that.

It’s complex [and] it’s administratively tricky.” But he says the reason Deloitte has opted for enhanced pay is “to pursue the spirit of the legislation rather than the letter. It’s looking into it and saying, ‘what’s the aim here?’ It’s to encourage working parents to take time off together and spend quality time with their families and then return to the workplace.”

It’s helpful from a talent retention perspective, he admits. “From a business perspective, you want to keep talent preserved in the organisation and to be positive and engaged. What you don’t want is somebody at work who thinks ‘this firm stopped me spending time with my kids at a critical point.’”

What’s more, it was only right the firm matched its generous maternity and paternity pay, Rolls points out. “We’ve enhanced our maternity pay and our paternity pay to a level that we think is quite good – why wouldn’t we offer that under shared parental leave? It’s not a, ‘why do we have to?’ it’s more, ‘why wouldn’t we?’

But for smaller companies with shallower pockets, allocating budget to enhancing Shared Parental Leave pay is tricky – especially when there aren’t yet any examples of best practice, says Gill Crowther, HR director at Nominet, the co.uk domain name registry. “Our strategy on benefits is to try and position our benefits package between the median and upper quartile, but when you don’t know what the marketplace is going to do that’s really, really difficult to do,” she says. “I’d love to be leading edge on this but I think if I was leading edge I might be bleeding edge.”

Mark Butler, a lecturer in UK employment law at Lancaster University and a qualified barrister, predicts that the reluctance of small and medium sized businesses to offer enhanced pay will drastically affect take-up. “If companies can’t afford to offer enhanced provisions in any way, and restrict it to the statutory £139.58 shared parental leave pay, then how many people can actually afford to take time out of the workplace – not least with another mouth to feed?” he argues. “That’s one of the biggest weaknesses of all our family-friendly policies in the UK: they all look great on the face of it, but you’ve actually got to be able to afford to take it.”