Lucy Lewis: Is shared parental leave as effective as it could be?

Lucy Lewis

According to statistics from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), published in February 2018, around 285,000 couples every year qualify for shared parental leave, but take-up could be as low as 2%.

Shared parental leave (SPL) was first introduced in 2015, billed as being part of the government’s commitment to creating a fairer society that gives parents more flexibility to decide how they want to share the care of a child in their first year.

This sounds good in principle but there have been concerns raised, including by the charity Working Families, that the system is not working as well as it could. Its research, published in April 2017, found that of the fathers who would not use shared parental leave, 37% stated this was because they could not afford to. Meanwhile, many employers which genuinely want to support shared parental leave are simply unable to afford to treat enhanced shared parental leave in the same way as enhanced maternity leave.

There is a broader issue too, which is that shared parental leave essentially sustains the status quo, with the traditional maternity and paternity leave pathways still placing emphasis on the mother as the primary care giver, because the mother must agree to give up her maternity leave in order for her partner to take shared parental leave.

The move by government to raise awareness of shared parental leave is to be welcomed, particularly in the context of the ongoing debate around equality and diversity in the workplace. But this is only part of a much bigger picture. It will be interesting to see whether, when the first round of gender pay gap reporting is complete after 4 April 2018, we see employers commit to improving shared parental pay in an attempt to try to re-balance family life and, in doing so, bring down any reported gaps. Indeed, the government may look to explore any correlation between organisations that have lower gender pay gaps and those that offer enhanced benefits, particularly shared parental leave.

In a climate where everybody should acknowledge the importance of equality and diversity in the workplace, employers should not look at issues such as shared parental leave and the gender pay gap in isolation. Organisations need a holistic approach that works towards a lasting change and real progress towards gender parity and equal opportunities, with a positive balance between work and family life.

Lucy Lewis is partner in the employment team at law firm Lewis Silkin