Modern man, modern fatherhood

Adam Bernstein
Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A rose-tinted look back at early post war history, often through the medium of film and TV, shows that the demarcation of familial roles and responsibilities was generally quite distinct. Mother looked after the house and the children, father went out to work and brought home the bacon.

But in the intervening years the evolution of employment law and parental rights has changed the equation somewhat; it’s now not uncommon to see a mother go out to work while the father stays at home caring for the children.

This societal sea-change has not gone unnoticed by Han-Son Lee, founder of Daddilife.com, an online community that seeks to support fathers. Last year, Daddilife published research that it undertook to see what life was like for 1,200 fathers at work: “We found that 87% of millennial dads were active in a day-to-day role as parents… but there is still too much of a stereotype that ‘dads should just be at work’. It’s a position that does nothing for true gender balance and gender equality.”

With print being so male dominated, a natural question that follows is how men – without touching on the niceties of political correctness – find the world of parental rights? Are there hurdles to their taking a greater role in the upbringing of their children?

Lee thinks men are lagging behind women in taking time out. He says: “It’s difficult to give a precise number as to the proportion of fathers that take time off, as not all firms track it accurately, but our research shows that up to one-third of new fathers are not even taking their two weeks.”

The law
Looking at the law, Arwen Makin, senior solicitor at ESP Law, notes that an employer’s obligations to men begins before a child’s birth. She says that “employees who have a qualifying relationship with a pregnant woman – most commonly as a husband, partner or father – have a right to unpaid time off to attend antenatal or adoption appointments”. However, she points out that these are limited to no more than two occasions and lasting no more than six-and-a-half hours each.

It’s interesting that Lee finds it bizarre that this “one element of the policy – that dads-to-be are legally only entitled to go to two of the three antenatal appointments – is just madness in my eyes”.

But once the baby is born, new fathers (or the non-primary care giver in same-sex couples) are entitled to two weeks of paternity leave – to enable them to care for the child and the child’s mother. This should be taken within 56 days of the birth or adoption placement and must only be taken in blocks of one or two consecutive weeks.

But there is a personal and financial cost to taking such leave. As Makin points out, the current weekly rate for statutory paternity pay is £148.68, or 90% of the employees’ average weekly earnings, whichever is lower – “that rate is likely to rise to £151.20 from 5 April 2020, but both entitlements only apply to those who have been employed for at least 26 weeks.”

This isn’t a king’s ransom and is all employees get, unless the employer is generous and pays more contractually. As a result, Lee directs those with questions in this area to either his website and a section on parental leave options, or alternatively, the gov.uk website, searching for childcare and parenting instead. He’s firm in his belief that the area of entitlements needs more reform: “In part, that means more time, but really means improving the rate of statutory pay, as the current flat rate means that an increasing number of new dads are struggling to even take two weeks.” To back his view, he quotes a June 2017 study from the TUC; it found that one in four men who became new fathers in 2016 were not entitled to any paternity leave at all, and were forced to head back to work within days – or even hours – of the birth of their child.

Statutory paternity leave itself is a relatively recent policy which Lee finds hard to imagine was only launched in 2003. He thinks that 12 September, National Flexible Working Day, “shouldn’t be so much a day of celebration; it really should be used as a chance to simply take stock of the vast change of mindset that’s still needed by many business owners.”

He says: “I’ve seen and heard from hundreds, if not thousands, of new dads who all say the same thing – ‘the two weeks of statutory paternity leave simply weren’t enough’ and it meant that when they returned to work, they were physically present, but mentally in a totally different place.”

Apart from statutory leave, it’s worth remembering that employees also have a right, after a qualifying period of 26 weeks of employment, to request flexible working, such as working from home. However, as Makin highlights: “Although such requests must be considered, they can be refused in certain circumstances and might not be suitable for certain, hands-on roles such as engineering or manufacturing.” And by the very nature of print, some roles may suit this form of support, but the majority won’t. Even so, where a request is made and refused, employers need to demonstrate good and fair reasons for the denial.

A relatively recent development is shared parental leave that was introduced as an option in 2015. This leave enables a mother or adopter to bring their maternity leave to an end early and transfer any remaining leave and/or pay to the father.

However, it’s not been a roaring success says Makin. “Take-up has been slow, but this may be due to a lack of awareness of the possibility.”

In fact, a February 2018 report on the BBC reckoned that take-up could indeed be very low. It quoted the Department for Business which said that some 285,000 couples qualified (at that time) for shared parental leave, but that only 2% used it – well below the 8% that was predicted for the new right. It’s for this reason that Makin says that employers should explain to employees that shared leave is a right for those who have been in post for least 26 weeks by the end of the ‘qualifying week’ – the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth.

A European perspective
Shared parental leave is not unique to the UK. Sweden, for example, has a very strong record on equal parental leave; its generous system allows parents to take up to 480 days off on 80% of their salary to a maximum of 30,000kr (£2,400) per month for the first 390 days.

The Guardian noted, back in 2015, that when Sweden became the first country to introduce shared leave in 1974, there was just 5% take-up. But ‘daddy quotas’ – time off specifically allocated to fathers on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis and the salary allowance – means that around 85% of men now take some time off.

But leave isn’t standard around Europe, says Lee. He points out that Switzerland offers just one day of statutory paternity leave and pay; Italy requires two days of compulsory leave on full pay with 10 months of voluntary shared leave on 30% of salary for six months (none thereafter); the Danes get 14 days on full pay and 224 days shared between either parent, fully paid; Iceland offers 120 days of paternity leave paid at 80% of normal salary; Hungary grants one week paid (at least 66% of previous earnings); Slovenia gives seven weeks in total, split equally between at least 66% of previous earnings and a flat rate/low paid of less than 66% of previous earnings; and Norway gives 70 days on full pay, either 26 weeks on full pay or 36 weeks on 80% pay.

But spare a thought for those not in normal employment. As Lee highlights: “The outlook for the self-employed and gig economy workers is far grimmer. In many countries, freelancers are not entitled to any statutory paternity pay or leave at all.”

Firms can help new fathers to support their family
While time out of a business, or any organisation for that matter, for whatever reason, isn’t necessarily going to cause harm, it’s not going to help. This makes it even more important for employers to proactively think about the process of helping new parents. Makin thinks that above all else, one of the most important things – both operationally and from an employee relations stance – “is regularly checking in with new parents to ask how they are, from a pastoral care perspective. Having a new addition to the family is often a massive change”.

She’s seen first-hand that fathers can often be overlooked in this respect, “but understanding that there is always a period of adjustment – and sleep deprivation – during the early days can be helpful from an employee wellbeing perspective”.

Another solution, as a way of making things easier for new parents, could be for employers to consider offering a temporary reduction in hours – salary pro-rata – alongside flexible start and finishing times to help with school drop-off and pick-up of older children, for example. Again, employers must be consistent in the application of this to avoid discrimination claims.

It is pleasing for Makin that employers do seem to understand and recognise they need to have a shared parental leave policy. Implementing one means clearing statutory hurdles such as the various statutory notices that can be difficult to navigate. But as she says: “Speaking to an employment law specialist for assistance can help to ensure that everything is done correctly.”

Something else not to be forgotten should be that while some employers offer an enhanced maternity policy to new mothers or primary caregivers, “recent case law,” says Makin, “has decided those same enhancements do not need to apply to shared parental leave” – although that could potentially be appealed further through the courts.

Her advice to those employers in this situation – who have an enhanced maternity package in place and who want to encourage staff to take shared parental leave further – should be to enhance the former to make it more attractive to new parents.

But Lee makes another point – one that relates to implementation of shared parental leave: “We have heard a lot of cases where the HR teams are going through the process for the first time with the dads and mums, so there can be a lot of misinformation and case handing there.” He thinks a shared parental leave process needs to be jointly agreed with employers, but that can also add to the time it takes to organise.

A happier workforce?
It’s encouraging for Lee that corporate attitudes are changing: “Parental leave is an area that has been a big focus area for many more enlightened companies over the past 12 months. And many firms have now offered far more enhanced forms of parental leave, which is hugely encouraging.”

And this makes sense, for it’s perfectly true that a new arrival is a momentous time for parents, and employers that manage this well create untold goodwill. For Makin, shared paternity leave certainly “has the potential to result in the sharing of time that has traditionally only applied to mothers and primary carers, with an acknowledgement that where there are two people bringing up a child, they can have equal importance and responsibility”.

It’s her view that this could be positive for all concerned. Indeed, she takes the line that “new fathers who feel they are ‘understood’ by their employers, particularly when it comes to such a significant period of upheaval in their lives, will often return as more engaged, positive employees”. Even so, we’re back to the thorny problem that the take-up remains low and traditional thinking is still prevalent.

The baton is taken up by Lee who thinks change is afoot. He says: “It’s encouraging that the best employers are starting to revise their paternity policies.” He notes that Deloitte now offers four weeks of full paid paternity leave, while other employers like O2 and Diageo have established options for more equal parental leave – “it’s a space that those making decisions are starting to see more clearly.”

Makin would advise firms wanting to actively encourage staff to take time off that there’s nothing to fear. However, she says that they need to be genuine in their encouragement: “It is about not just paying ‘lip service’ but actively demonstrating that there will not be any negative repercussions [to the employee], and that it is actively encouraged.” She says the process can be smoothed by good communication generally and ensuring employees – who are off work on parental leave – are still kept in the loop and given equal opportunities, and are notified and encouraged to apply for any internal vacancies.

While a business can benefit from proactively encouraging staff to take parental leave, should it be billed as an employment incentive? Lee thinks not. In his view: “It’s like saying maternity leave should be part of the employment incentive. The point is that dads are becoming far more equalised as parents, and so the demand for better and more enhanced parental leave will already be there and growing.”

He adds that the fact that a number of larger companies took action on it last year shows that there’s a sea-change about to take place. Furthermore, he thinks that businesses that don’t help fathers will very soon be left looking like the odd ones out – and that will affect their recruitment and retention.

The future
Shared parental leave in the UK is relatively new, certainly compared to Sweden. It’s been an enormous change in the law, but take-up remains relatively low. Makin suggests that the reason it isn’t taken up is that it is paid at the (low) statutory rate, even though there are many maternity policies which are paid at the basic level too.

It’s her view that the way to solve this problem is to make the financial incentives for all completely equal where there is enhanced maternity pay in a business. She adds: “This would not only encourage the secondary carer to share the leave, but would send a message that it was something that was actively encouraged, rather than businesses fulfilling a basic legal obligation”.

Ultimately, Lee feels that shared parental leave is an encouraging start, but, as one of his writers recently commented, “a dad is for life, not just paternity leave”. What worries Lee is that “paternity leave is only for a set amount of time – it’s what happens after that engrains a parent’s experience at work”.

And that’s the nub of the matter.

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