Since April of this year (2015), legislation has been introduced in the UK to encourage shared parental leave (SPL) to enable parents to take time off with their new children (including adoption). These new rules mean that leave can be taken in blocks, and crucially can be shared between the eligible parties meaning that fathers (or mothers in same sex couples etc) are now more able to take more substantial periods of leave to be with their child.
This week, Virgin announced that they as a company are embracing these new rules on SPL, and announced that they will support 52 weeks of shared leave with full pay (level of pay dependent on time served at Virgin) for employees as part of their wider strategies for health and wellbeing in the company. Richard Branson is quoted as saying:
“As a father and now a granddad to three wonderful grandchildren, I know how magical the first year of a child’s life is but also how much hard work it takes. I’m delighted that we can offer this support to our staff so that they can enjoy parental leave to the full as we continue our work in changing business for good.”
Therefore for Branson, parenting is important, but business being more person centred and family friendly appears to also be part of the public adoption of these new rules around SPL by Virgin.
Whilst moves such as Virgin’s are positive in terms of encouraging men to enjoy time at home with their children in the weeks and months after birth or adoption, the broader picture in the UK about shared parental leave appears more gloomy. The affordability of SPL for most, if they are not receiving full pay as some at Virgin will be enabled to do, means that SPL is a ‘nice to have’ but not a ‘we can do’ for many families. Prior to the introduction of the new legislation, the government was predicting take up of just 2% of SPL among fathers, with finance seemingly a block for many in the practicalities of SPL.
There are also other crucial cultural factors about particularly men taking leave with their children, whilst refreshing to see media coverage of ‘stay at home’ dads, and of men speaking positively of their experience of being the ‘primary caregiver’, many of the dads featured in this Times article noted the structural and cultural barriers they faced in being at home with their children. Tales of men being unwelcome at children’s centres, cafes being labelled as ‘mummy friendly’ and the difficulty of infiltrating what appears to be a heavily gendered landscape of playdates and children’s groups, does not perhaps make the possibility of SPL more appealing to men. Whilst groups such as Dads Rock offer a fantastic opportunity for men to attend a playgroup setting designed around fathers, such groups are not available to all fathers in all areas.
The picture of the culture of men as fathers in other countries, particularly Scandinavia, appears stark in contrast to the UK. Recently Sweden announced that men would receive 3 months paternity leave (full pay) rather than the current 2 if new legislation is passed in the Swedish parliament in the autumn. This new proposal is just part of Sweden’s parental leave policies, which includes a ‘daddy quota’ to encourage men to take leave with their children. Similarly, as Helen Russell demonstrated in her recent interesting article about fatherhood in Denmark, the culture for fathers is different in Denmark, with shared parenting and taking shared parental leave more normalised within the structure and culture of Danish society.
Importantly Russell noted that men who take shared leave to be with their children have better relationships with their children and fathers are just as capable at caregiving as mothers. This is then positive for both parents, and children. Whilst legislation might have moved in the right direction in the UK and the support of big companies such as Virgin, adds an important positive affirmation to the notion of SLP being a good thing for workers and their families, the structural and cultural set up of the UK in supporting fathers still perhaps has some way to go.