Linda Holbeche: Would more flexible parental leave end reward inequality?

In its Modern Workplaces consultation, the government is championing a radical new system of parental leave in which the existing 18 weeks’ maternity leave and pay will be protected, as will the current two weeks of paternity leave and pay. The remainder of maternity leave “should be reclassified as parental leave” to make it available to either parent equally.

These proposals seem entirely fair and are consistent with current social trends since many women want, or need to, return to work as soon as possible after giving birth. Similarly, many men want to spend time on their parental duties. However, would these proposals lead to a greater gender balance at board level?

That seems unlikely. Despite 20 years of evidence-based equalities campaigning by organisations such as Opportunity Now, the number of women on the boards of FTSE 100 organisations remains low. Similarly, the Higgs Review of the Role and Effectiveness of Non-Executive Directors, and the subsequent Tyson Report on the Recruitment and Development of Non-Executive Directors recommended increasing the representation of women on boards as a means of improving governance, yet most commercial boards remain significantly gender-imbalanced. This may be due more to boards recruiting in their own image and women’s continuing exclusion from largely male networks of power, than to the traditional career patterns of women with children.

But the proposals represent an overdue move in the right direction. It sends a powerful signal parenthood is a serious commitment for both parents, and opens up the possibility both men and women might aspire to have it all in future.

Linda Holbeche is co-director at Holbeche Partnership.