Shared parental leave must match maternity benefits to truly foster change

Shared parental leave (SPL) legislation is very good news for the UK. If we can make having babies and the necessary flexibility of early years child rearing a parental opportunity, rather than a female challenge, then we have a glimmer of light in the world of women’s career development.

Flexibility could eventually become a workplace norm, instead of a mummy-track headache. This, more than any other legislation or diversity and inclusion policy, might help solve the undeniable challenge of people often wanting or needing a period of flexibility during children’s pre-school days.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently conducted a poll of 4,000 adults, which found 69% of fathers had missed a key milestone in their child’s life, such as first words or first steps. My own experience of my baby daughter’s first words being ‘bye’ and ‘gone’ haunt me to this day, so I have sympathy with this. A third (32%) of fathers regret not having taken any, or enough, leave after the birth of their child. But encouragingly, 66% of men thinking about having children intend to use shared parental leave.

Armed with this statistic I conducted a poll in our London office to see what the young men of Sodexo thought about SPL. I must admit I have been sceptical about the degree to which men would take up the option of sharing their partner’s maternity or adoption leave.

I surveyed 40 men aged between 25- and 35-years-old, asking them whether, when they have a child, they would want to share their partner’s leave. The results were an interesting mix of wistful optimism and pragmatic decisions.

First the good news. Every man said that they would very much like to share their partner’s leave. I pushed a bit and asked whether they believed that taking some parental leave would damage their career prospects. They said no, it would not. I hope that this is to some degree a reflection of our positive diversity and inclusion culture.

I then asked whether it would make a difference if their partner received enhanced maternity pay, but they only received the statutory parental leave pay. Most were gobsmacked by the relatively low level of statutory pay. Seventy per cent said that whichever of the partners received the most money would be the one to take the majority of the leave. Their responses were ones of affordability. They believed that they would share an equal responsibility with their partner when it came to raising a child, and whoever stayed at home would depend on finances.

The answer to whom would earn the most during a period of shared parental leave is not a gender question, but one of company policy. It could well be the mother’s employer who has the more generous parental leave scheme, but her point of interest is only the terms of the maternity pay scheme. When it comes to the father, the quality of the maternity leave scheme isn’t relevant. However, the degree to which the parental leave pay is enhanced to meet the company’s maternity leave pay scheme turns out to be of critical importance.

If we genuinely want to follow the spirit of the parental leave philosophy, we as HR practitioners should be encouraging our organisations to match parental leave pay to any enhancements applied to the company maternity benefits. This does not solve the problem of different rates in different firms. However, it would be a strong first signal that we are championing one of the most important gender diversity opportunities since the equal pay act.

Natalie Bickford is European HR director at Sodexo. She is ranked 18th on the HR Most Influential Practitioners list