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Employers, not parents, need parental leave education

As take-up of shared parental leave remains disappointingly low, executive coach Geraldine Gallacher believes the government should be targeting employers to change perceptions and make a difference.

Geraldine Gallacher

March 2018

It’s nearly three years since the launch of shared parental leave. Take-up remains low, hovering around the 2% mark: around a quarter of the level expected when it launched.

To bridge this gap, which the government believes is down to a lack of awareness, we are to see a £1.5m publicity campaign targeting parents. The aim will be to encourage them to each take an extended period of leave to care for their infant and in doing so ‘share the joy’.

There is certainly a very strong case for trying to get more fathers to share parenting duties.

Professionally, women pay a heavy career penalty when they stop working and have children in terms of progression when they re-enter the workplace later on.  For those who juggle a job and motherhood, it is all too common for them to be placed on the ‘mummy track’ of slow or no promotion.

See also: Equality not just a problem for women

As a result, employers end up being deprived of talented women through their organisations. This leads to an over-representation of men in management and leadership positions which, according to research, negatively impacts business performance.

Society misses out too. Without men showing that childcare and careers are a shared enterprise, we lock in for another generation an expectation that childcare is for women and careers are for men.

Low take-up of shared parental leave isn’t due to a lack of awareness. Nor is it because parents don’t buy into these arguments. The reason is that they understand all too well that in male-dominated workplaces taking extended time away from their career to care for their child is just as much ‘career suicide’ for men as it is for women.

And therein lies the fundamental problem with this campaign: it is targeting the wrong audience all together.

Rather than focusing on parents, who would like no more than not to risk their career in return for spending time with their children, it should focus on employers who have the biggest opportunity to change perceptions and take up of shared parental leave.

That should involve education around the kind of commitment we need to see from leaders and the support from managers which is necessary to ensure employees – men or women – feel comfortable with the idea that shared parental leave can work for them. Without this in place, any campaign, while valuable in promoting awareness, is unlikely to make an enduring difference.

Geraldine Gallacher is founder and MD of the Executive Coaching Company.

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