Why equal parental leave is critical in progressing a gender equal workplace

Written by Caroline Strachan on 27 March 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

The move towards shared parental leave points to something more fundamental, according to Caroline Strachan.

For years now businesses have been focused on a gender equal workplace, supporting women’s networks, International Women’s Day celebrations etc. Each year new research is launched that suggests a new barrier has been found; lack of sponsors, lack of male allies and more. 

What if the answer was simpler than this and the true core of the issue is wrapped up in attitudes to parenting?

Many women across our Women at Work membership have shared they’re expected to pick up the slack around childcare. The nursery calls due to a sick child, they call the mother (at work). The school sends out calls for volunteers for school assembly, addressing the support needed as mums, the list goes on. 

(This is easily addressed by the way, put the father as the named contact with the nursery and speak to the school about their gendered language, they likely have no idea)

Why does this traditional family set up still haunt us in 2020 when the majority of households are co-working families, women don’t just become mothers, people become parents, so where’s the partner? (I’m focusing on male/female partnerships here but this could equally be applicable in same sex partnerships)

Why don’t men take more parental leave? The latest estimate is only 2% of men take the offer of paternity leave. 

Apart from being a huge personal life event and experience missed, by men continuing not to take leave they’re fuelling the fire that it will always be women taking the career breaks and therefore not the perfect fit for promotion and more. Here’s the three areas to tackle to move to shared parenting and therefore a more equal workplace:

Affordability

Ensuring equal paid parental leave removes the 'I can’t afford to take time off' barrier and is cited as the main reason fathers can’t take leave. Companies can move to an equal shared parental leave policy. (Unless your company is majority male across all ranks this is unlikely to hit you financially).

Acceptability

Many parents report colleagues and friends challenge their shared parenting decisions, making the move less socially acceptable. We know men want to be more present fathers, but social norms can hold them back.

This isn’t just about men; women need to talk and be ready to share the leave. Companies can help by the way they communicate parental leave to help move on people perception of what’s 'normal'.

Ambition

Whilst researching for my TEDx talk I spoke to 200+ men and the number one reason holding them back from taking leave was the fear that companies would think they were not serious about their careers. In daddilife research many dads reported taking as little leave as possible is viewed as a badge of honour in their company.

 

One Women At Work member shared that her husband’s CEO said “here’s my mobile number, if you run into any blockers you just call me, I’ve got your back”. Now that’s real progress.

Why is it important for both parents to take parental leave? In the case of families with two parents, shared leave spreads the parental load. This supports both physical and mental wellbeing for both parents.

The Nordic Cooperation say that 'involved fatherhood' improves male health status. We would all be wise to look to the Nordic countries for their societal success in embracing shared parental leave.

Just check any café in Stockholm on a work day to see the sheer volume of fathers enjoying parental leave, or in the absence of a trip to Sweden, the Nordic Cooperation have a series of excellent research articles and supporting data on their website.

At a time where we’re all focused on wellbeing at work, allowing your people to simply be parents may be a big step forwards in helping them feel valued and equal.



Outside of any family benefits the overwhelming benefit I see to shared parental leave is by normalising equal parenting, we will normalise what 'equal' means in the workplace. As long as there are mainly women taking parental leave, they will continue to be typecast into the carer role.

I truly believe if it could be a man or woman taking parental leave, gender discrimination in the workplace will reduce significantly. It means women can stop having to remove their engagement rings when attending interviews to avoid the 'ah getting married soon I see' question, which actually means, so you’ll be leaving us soon to have children!

Or looking over women for promotion, just in case they might not be around. If a man or woman could be taking parental leave, you’re narrowing your field of talent considerably!

In summary, why should we all encourage people to take shared parental leave? Women don’t just become mothers, people become parents, and deserve equal opportunity to be happy and supported.

 

About the author

Caroline Strachan is the co-founder of Women at Work.

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