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Addressing the gender pay gap: is it time to consider use it or lose it paternity leave?

Friday 25th May | News

By Louisa Gardner

As we know, the 4th of April 2018 marked the deadline for all companies in Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland) with more than 250 employees to report their gender pay gap to the Government Equalities Office. As detailed in our blog last month, the returned data shows that nearly 80% of those who have responded have reported higher levels of pay to men than women.

So now that the data has been collected and will continue to be so annually from here on in, we should consider further what employers can do to reduce or eliminate their gender pay gap. Among the suggestions raised are target setting, salary transparency or increased training opportunities for women. One of the key reasons however why women’s pay progression lags behind that of their male colleagues is maternity leave and time taken off for childcare. Could restoring the balance between men and women in relation to paid parental leave have the dual effect of restoring the gender pay balance?

A recent enquiry launched by the Women and Equalities Committee into Fathers and the Workplace indicates that it could. The enquiry has been prompted by research findings contained in the 2017 Modern Family Index which confirmed twice as many fathers compared to mothers believe that working flexibly will result in them being perceived as less committed to their job and would negatively impact their career. Over half (53%) of millennial fathers indicated that they struggled to balance the demands of working full time alongside family commitments and would like to downsize to a less stressful job. The report also notes that women in the UK make up 74.2% of the part-time work force – largely attributable to increased care-giving roles, while the vast majority of fathers still work full time.

Shared parental leave has been available to new fathers since the Shared Parental Leave Regulations came in to effect on 5th of April 2015. The Regulations allow up to 50 weeks leave or 37 weeks’ pay to be shared out between both parents as they please – either in one block or split into several chunks with periods of work carried out in between. Statutory shared parental pay is payable at either £145.18 per week or 90% of the parent’s weekly salary, whichever is lower.  With a predicted take up rate of only 3 – 8% however, it is clear that the Government flagship policy does not go far enough to even out the parental responsibilities. So why has there been such a reluctance from male employees to take up the scheme? The negative social and cultural connotations associated with paternity leave as evidenced by the statistics above contribute heavily, with many fathers feeling unsupported in the workplace with regards to childcare and their aspirations for an improved work-life balance. Also very telling within the Modern Family Index Report is that 44% of fathers stated that they have been dishonest with their employer with respect of family related responsibilities for fear that it may ‘get in the way of work’.

Looking at how the issue is handled abroad, Sweden set the ball rolling globally for shared parental leave when in 1974 it substituted the term ‘maternity leave’ with the gender neutral ‘parental leave’. The country has continued to pave the way for fathers to take a greater role in the care-giving responsibilities for children and in 1995 a ’30 day Daddy quota’ was introduced. This saw for the first time an increase in the number of fathers taking up parental leave, a trend which has continued with fathers on leave (colloquially named Latte Papas) now receiving up to a quarter of all leave paid. Sweden has now made available a 12 week leave period for new fathers on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. This ring-fenced approach to paternity leave is what the Women and Equalities Committee has recommended be implemented here in the United Kingdom.

Maria Miller, Chair of the Committee, acknowledges that many fathers do wish to take a more active role in caring for their children. She states that ‘investing in policies that support men to share childcare equally, and allowing women to keep working, will reap financial benefits as well as reducing the gender pay gap.’ The Committee has recommended that a 12 week ‘use it or lose it’ paternity leave package (as above) be offered to new fathers in the workforce to allow them to play a greater role in the early development of their children and to share the burden of responsibility between parents. They suggest that leave payments should represent 90% of the Father’s current wage (although this would be capped) for the full 12 weeks to ensure that the scheme would be accessible by men of all incomes. The government has been urged to legislate to ensure the flexible working hours and requests by new fathers in work are accommodated by employers.

Whilst the Government has not accepted the recommendations to date, it has acknowledged that sharing the burden of childcare and thus allowing more women to remain or re-enter in the workplace will go a long way towards narrowing the gender pay gap. The Government has made it clear that it does wish to see the burden of care for children shared more equally between mothers and fathers – in the child’s first year in particular. A Government evaluation of the current Shared Parental Leave scheme is due later this year and we will keep you updated on any reform in this area.

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