No 36: Supporting Fathers to Take Parental Leave to Reduce Gender Pay Gaps

by Alison Koslowski

Fewer than 1 in 10 eligible fathers in the UK are taking some amount of shared parental leave, in contrast to close to 10 out of 10 eligible mothers. Clearly then, new mothers and fathers have a very different experience in how they harmonise their work and their family responsibilities. Given this significant difference between male and female employees, it is perhaps unsurprising that most employers are continuing to struggle to close gender pay gaps.

Many social scientists have documented how motherhood contributes to the gender wage gap. In essence, this is because mothers take more time out to care for children than fathers, picking up a motherhood penalty, whilst there is often a fatherhood bonus. This is reflected in leave taking practice.

Parental leave is a policy with the potential to help employers reduce their gender pay gaps but it has yet to be fully embraced by many organisations as such an instrument in their gender equality tool kit.

Parental leave is leave that is available to both mothers and fathers (increasingly including same sex couples) to allow them protected time away from the workplace to care for their young children. It typically follows maternity and paternity leave, but there are as many variations in parental leave design as there are countries.

Whilst couched in gender neutral terms, the proportion of parental leave days taken by fathers is vastly lower than the proportion of parental leave days taken by mothers. This gap is extreme in some countries (e.g. Poland), with perhaps fewer than two per cent of leave days being taken by fathers, but also still quite large in those countries considered to be doing best on the gender equality front, such as Iceland.

Consider your own workplace. It is likely that you can quickly identify the leave-taking norms and that they will be different for mothers and fathers. At many self-considered family-friendly workplaces in the UK offering ‘top ups’ to statutory provision, it is fairly ‘normal’ for mothers to take around a year of leave and for fathers to take just six weeks. Whilst six weeks constitutes a big change in leave-taking practice for fathers, and is way above the average time taken, it is far from being ‘gender equal’.

A ‘gender equal’ world in terms of leave-taking does not have to mean that every parenting team necessarily decides to divide the leave on a 50/50 basis (though this is one option). Rather, on average, there would be as many couples taking a leaf out of New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern’s and her partner Clarke Gayford’s book as there would be doing it traditionally.

Quite simply, if there is a more even distribution of caring for small children across male and female employees, it is likely that this will contribute to a more even distribution of roles and pay across male and female employees.

As co-editor of the annual cross-national compendium of Parental Leave legislation I found myself at a European Council Working group in Brussels in May 2018. The purpose of the meeting was to agree what should be considered as ‘parental leave’, distinct from ‘maternity leave’ and ‘paternity leave’ for the purposes of monitoring parental leave take-up. In particular, there is an enthusiasm for monitoring parental leave take-up by fathers, as the European Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee considers the report into a new proposal for a directive on work-life balance for parents and carers. If implemented this would repeal the current Council Directive (2010/18/EU) and replace it with more supportive legislation for parents.

Not for the first time at a forum in Brussels, the UK proved to be exceptional. This is because our ‘shared parental leave’ is a misnomer. To be technically correct, it should be called ‘transferable maternity leave’. The key difference between a parental leave and a transferable maternity leave is that with the latter, the father’s eligibility is contingent on the mother’s eligibility. No other country in Europe is organising their leave policy for fathers in this way. There was general agreement around the table that the UK did not have a parental leave policy that would fit into the emerging definitions for a new indicator.

The problems with UK leave policy design are starting to be recognised by the UK government. A recent report for the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee into fathers and the workplace makes some helpful recommendations.

Currently, fathers receive little support in the UK context. Some of them are eligible for two weeks paternity leave paid at the paltry sum of not more than £145.18 per week. Many are not even eligible for this. They are also entitled to some weeks of unpaid leave. Unsurprisingly, unpaid leave is not a viable option for many, which is reflected in a strong linear positive relationship between leave take-up and income.

Some workplaces in the UK offer above and beyond the statutory requirement – see Working Families Award winners. The next step for these workplaces if they want to use leave to contribute to a reduction in their gender pay gaps is to support employees so that leave is taken in a more similar way by both men and women.

In terms of social policy, the UK government can do much to better support fathers and mothers in the workplace, and thus contribute to reducing the gender pay gap. Two simple steps would be: 1) to make sure all fathers are eligible to take leave as an individual right; and 2) to make taking leave financially viable for all fathers.

Alison Koslowski is Professor of Social Policy and Research Methods at the University of Edinburgh. She is co-editor of the International Network on Leave Policies and Research Annual Review and also co-editor of the journal Families, Relationships and Societies. She has written about fathers and workplace culture for the Harvard Business Review.