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Shared Parental Leave in the UK: is it working? Lessons from other countries

Published: 5 Apr 2017

Manchester University’s Helen Norman and Colette Fagan assess the take up of Shared Parental Leave, and what lessons might be learned from other countries.

[i] This week marks two years since the introduction of Shared Parental Leave (SPL) [ii] Hailed as a flagship policy, which gives parents more choice around balancing work and care, SPL has been praised for allowing fathers to take a longer period of time off work to bond with their baby (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills 2014).

Yet the evidence suggests that there are still only a minority of fathers taking SPL up. The Working Families Employers survey, capturing information on over 940,000 employees in the UK, reported that between 0.5 and 2 per cent of eligible fathers had made use of the new provision by October 2015 (Working Families 2016). This is much lower than the proportion of fathers who take parental leave in many other European countries, and particularly the 80-90% take up rates by fathers in some of the Nordic countries (Fagan and Norman 2013).

Why have so few eligible fathers taken their entitlement to Shared Parental Leave?

There are several reasons for the low take up of SPL:

  • Most fathers cannot afford to take SPL because it is paid at a low flat rate, equivalent to less than a quarter (24%) of men’s median full-time (gross) weekly earnings[iii]
  • Many mothers are reluctant to give up a portion of their maternity leave for their partner (e.g. see Working Families 2016).
  • The SPL policy is complex as illustrated by its 66-page technical guide (see Department for Business Innovation & Skills 2015) – which may partly explain why so many organisations claim to be in favour of SPL but very few have taken action to promote it (e.g. see My Family Care 2016).
  • Strict eligibility rules mean that 2 in 5 working fathers with a child under one do not qualify for SPL because their partner is not in paid work (TUC 2015).
  • In many workplaces there are organizational barriers which inhibit men from taking leave for family reasons (Working Families 2016; Norman and Fagan 2017). For example, nearly half (45%) of fathers in the Working Families 2015 Modern Families Index felt their employer would not approve of them making use of SPL (Working Families 2015), and half of male employees in 200 organisations surveyed by My Family Care (2016) felt that SPL was perceived negatively at work.

How do we improve take up? Lessons from other countries

Evaluations of parental leave arrangements in other countries have found that the schemes which stimulate the best take-up rate by fathers are those which reserve an individual portion (‘quota’) of leave for the father, provide a high replacement rate for earnings while the father is on leave, and permit flexibility in when and how the leave may be taken. Such schemes provide an incentive for fathers to take parental leave, in contrast to family based allocations that can be shared by parents but in practice are mainly used by mothers (Fagan and Norman 2013; Norman, Fagan and Elliot 2017). For example in Norway, ten weeks of parental leave are reserved for the father on a use-it-or-lose-it basis, which has resulted in 90% of eligible fathers taking up at least some of their entitlement. Prior to the introduction of this ‘daddy quota’, less than 4% of fathers took parental leave (Brandth and Kvande 2016). Similarly, three months of leave are reserved for fathers in Iceland, and 90 days are reserved for fathers in Sweden resulting in approximately nine in ten eligible fathers taking up at least some of their entitlement (Duvander et al. 2016; Eydal and Gíslason 2016).

A ‘daddy quota’ has a clear and direct impact on take up because it promotes parental leave as an explicit right for fathers. This also makes it more acceptable in workplace cultures for fathers to use reconciliation policies – and fathers make more use of parental leave schemes when they have a supportive workplace environment (Norman, Fagan and Elliot 2017; Fagan and Norman 2013; COWI 2008).

Evidence from the Nordic countries suggests that parental leave must also be paid at near-salary replacement levels in order to make taking time off work to care for children a viable option. For example, 80-100% of earnings are replaced when fathers take parental leave in Norway, Iceland and Sweden.

The Nordic countries have the highest take-up rates, but fathers’ use of parental leave has risen in other countries, triggered by policy reforms that introduce or extend a quota for fathers and increase financial support. One such example is Germany where fathers’ take up of leave increased from 3.3% in 2002 to 13.7% in 2008 as a result of parental leave reforms that increased the earnings replacement rate (to 67%) and introduced a daddy quota (Fagan and Norman 2013).

Alongside these policy reforms, it is also crucial that clear communication and training is provided to organisations so that line managers have the tools to deal with SPL effectively, support their employees who wish to take it, and understand the role it plays in the wider flexible culture of the organisation (Working Families 2016).

Where does SPL go from here?

Based on evidence from other countries, fathers’ take up of SPL in the UK would increase if SPL was reformed to give fathers an individual, non-transferable right to parental leave with a higher earnings replacement rate than the current arrangement. If more fathers took parental leave this would facilitate a more gender equal sharing of care responsibilities and thus help to reduce the pay penalty experienced by women when they become mothers – hence the recent Government initiated gender pay gap enquiry recommended that three months of paid paternity leave be introduced (see Women and Equalities Committee 2016). Unfortunately the Government rejected this recommendation. However, the Government’s Fathers and the Workplace enquiry is now underway, and it is likely that the recommendation for fathers to have an individual rather than shared parental leave entitlement will be reiterated (e.g. see Walker 2017; Topping 2017). It is hoped that the government will listen this second time around, for all the evidence indicates that an individual entitlement to paid parental leave will provide the springboard to enable more fathers to take leave when their child is young; and that this early involvement is sustained as the children grow up (Fagan and Norman 2016).

References

Brandth, B., Kvande, E. (2016) ‘Norway country note’, in: Koslowski A., Blum S. and Moss P. (eds.) International Review of Leave Policies and Research 2016. Available at: http://www.leavenetwork.org/lp_and_r_reports/

COWI (2008) Directorate General Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities Study on the costs and benefits of options to improve provisions for the reconciliation of work, private and family life – Main Report, June 2008, in collaboration with Ideas Consult

Department for Business Innovation and Skills (2015): Shared parental leave and pay: employers’ technical guide: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/shared-parental-leave-and-pay-employers-technical-guide

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2014): 285,000 working couples eligible for shared parental leave: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/285000-working-couples-eligible-for-shared-parental-leave

Duvander, A.-Z., Haas, L., and Hwang, P. (2016) ‘Sweden country note’, in: Koslowski A., Blum S. and Moss P. (eds.) International Review of Leave Policies and Research 2016. Available at: http://www.leavenetwork.org/lp_and_r_reports/

Eydal, G.B. and Gíslason, I.V. (2016) ‘Iceland country note’, in: Koslowski A., Blum S. and Moss P. (eds.) International Review of Leave Policies and Research 2016. Available at: http://www.leavenetwork.org/lp_and_r_reports/

Fagan, C., Norman, H. (2016) Which fathers are involved in caring for pre-school age children in the UK? A longitudinal analysis of the influence of work hours in employment on shared childcare arrangements in couple households in Crespi, I. and Ruspini, E. (eds): Balancing Work and Family in a Changing Society: The Fathers’ Perspective, Palgrave Macmillan.

Fagan, C., Norman, H. (2013) Men and gender equality: tackling gender segregation in family roles and in social care jobs in Bettio, F., Plantenga, J. & Smith, M. (eds.) Gender and the European Labour Market. Oxon: Routledge.

My Family Care (2016): Shared Parental Leave – One Year On – Where Are We Now? www.myfamilycare.co.uk/news/update/shared-parental-leave-where-are-we-now.html

Norman, H., Fagan, C (2017) What makes fathers involved in their children’s upbringing? Working Families WorkFlex blog: https://www.workingfamilies.org.uk/workflex-blog/father-involvement/

Norman, H., Fagan, C. and Elliot, M. (2017) How can policy support fathers to be more involved in childcare? Evidence from cross-country policy comparisons and UK longitudinal household data. Evidence submitted to the ‘Fathers and the Workplace’ Inquiry by Dr Helen Norman, Professor Colette Fagan and Professor Mark Elliot, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester. Available from: https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/women-and-equalities-committee/inquiries/parliament-2015/fathers-and-the-workplace-16-17/publications/

Norman, H., Fagan, C. and Watt, L. (2017) What should mums and dads do? Changes in attitudes towards parenting, Working Families WorkFlex blog: https://www.workingfamilies.org.uk/workflex-blog/what-should-mums-and-dads-do-changes-in-attitudes-towards-parenting/

Topping, A. (2017) Call to give fathers allocated leave to improve uptake, The Guardian 22 March 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/mar/22/force-men-to-take-father-only-parental-leave-experts-urge-mps?CMP=share_btn_link

TUC (2015) Two in five new fathers won’t qualify for shared parental leave, says TUC https://www.tuc.org.uk/workplace-issues/work-life-balance/employment-rights/two-five-new-fathers-won%E2%80%99t-qualify-shared

Walker, P. (2017) Improve shared parental leave to cut gender pay gap, urge MPs, The Guardian 28 March 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/mar/28/improve-shared-parental-leave-to-cut-gender-pay-gap-urge-mps?CMP=share_btn_link

Women and Equalities Committee (2016) Gender pay gap enquiry: https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/women-and-equalities-committee/inquiries/parliament-2015/gender-pay-gap-15-16/

Working Families (2016): Shared parental leave: the perspective from employers January 2016, Working Families Briefing: www.workingfamilies.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Working-Families-SPL-briefing-paper-January-2016.pdf

Working Families (2015) The Modern Families Index 2015, Working Families and Bright Horizons: London https://www.workingfamilies.org.uk/publications/the-modern-families-index/

Notes

[i]  We would like to thank Dr Laura Watt for her assistance in collating information and data.

[ii] Shared Parental Leave (SPL) came into force on 5 April 2015 and allows eligible parents to share up to 50 weeks’ leave and 37 weeks’ pay, previously only available to the mother. It is a flexible provision that allows parents to take leave in one week blocks interspersed with periods of work, and parents can take leave at the same time. It is paid at a flat rate of £139.58 per week or 90% of average weekly earnings if that is lower.

[iii] In April 2016, men full-time (gross) weekly earnings were £578.

Related Content

Take a look at the video case book of parents giving first-hand accounts of Shared Parental Leave.

Read Adam’s blog about his experiences of Shared Parental Leave.

 

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