How has shared parental leave worked in the UK?

It’s been almost two years since Shared Parental Leave was introduced in the UK – a policy aimed at creating more gender neutral roles vis-à-vis parenting, childcare and work. It certainly began with all the right intentions – giving fathers the opportunity to be more actively involved with their new baby in the first year of its life and the mother a chance to return to the workplace, secure in the knowledge that their child is in safe hands at home.

What is Shared Parental Leave (SPL) all about?

SPL allows new mothers to share leave with their partner and to also split up periods of leave. According to this policy, parents are entitled to a maximum of 50 weeks of shared leave in the child’s first year and to a maximum of 37 weeks of Shared Parental Pay (SHPP). The parents can choose to avail of this leave simultaneously or at different times. For example, the couple can choose to take 25 weeks off together to stay home and care for the new baby or split the 50 weeks amongst themselves.

There are certain rules that parents need to qualify for in order to be eligible for SPL. The mother must have worked continuously for the same employer for at least 26 weeks by the end of the 15th week preceding the due date (or the corresponding dates that match with the adopted child). The partner too should have been working for a minimum of 26 weeks (although they need not be consecutive) and have earned at least £390 in total in 13 weeks (again not necessarily consecutive).

If all the above conditions are met, the couple will earn shared parental leave pay at £139.58 a week or 90% of an employee’s average wage, whichever is lower. The pay is only given for 37 of the 50 weeks of leave and the remaining 13 weeks are unpaid.

Has SPL worked in the UK?

While this appears to be a step in the right direction when it comes to promoting equality in the workplace and also attempts to break stereotypes about women being the primary child care providers, the policy is yet to gather momentum. It is still early days to be able to judge whether or not the law has proved successful in its main objective of encouraging women to return to work after having started a family.

According to the findings of a study by My Family Care, only 1% of the men have taken up this opportunity and up to 55% of women are reluctant to share their leave with their partners.

Previously, women were entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave so the new policy comes across as something that they would be giving up rather than an assertion of equal rights. Women have therefore not exactly been thrilled at the idea of having to share their leave with their partners. They would prefer for dads to be granted independent paternity leave on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis.

Fathers are of the opinion that although the policy is aimed towards promoting shared parental responsibilities, it still places women in charge of deciding how the leave will be shared. To many, this comes as an encroachment on their independent right to paternity leave. They too are in favour of implementing the ‘use it or lose it’ arrangement, which keeps them in control of their rights to paternity leave.

A part of the reason why couples are not too elated with SPL could also be attributed to financial affordability. In households where the man earns more, it would make little sense for the couple to forego the larger income. Also the stringent eligibility criteria would mean that 40% of parents may not qualify because the mother doesn’t have a stable paid job. Dads too are apprehensive to take up SPL as it may end up having a negative impact on their career, not to mention having to relinquish their generous pay especially if they are earning more than £139.58 a week.

Along with all the logistical complications, one of the biggest challenges for people taking up SPL are the cultural perceptions about fathers taking such an extended period of time off work. In order for this move to be successful in its objectives, we need more and more men in senior leadership positions to walk the talk and set an example to others by taking the bold step of pro-actively sharing child care duties so that their partners could enjoy the freedom to get back to work.

SPL offers a unique opportunity for couples to establish gender equality both at home and in the workplace. Whether or not parents are going to be able to leverage it to their advantage and make it a win-win situation for all parties concerned is something that only time will tell.