Shared parental leave was introduced in the UK in 2015, with the intention of making it easier for women to go back to work after having a baby or adopting a child – while simultaneously allowing partners to spend more time at home.
However, according to new figures, very few men are taking advantage of the scheme. The reason? A tricky mixture of outdated gender stereotypes and financial pressure.
A new study, reported by The Independent, found that only around 8,700 new parents took shared parental leave between March 2016 and March 2017. This means that fewer than 1% of the parents who are eligible for the scheme took advantage of it.
The study found that 661,000 mothers and 221,000 fathers took maternity and paternity leave in the same period.
Shared parental leave allows new parents to split up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of statutory pay between them, rather than only the mother taking traditional maternity leave.
Under statutory maternity leave in the UK, new mothers can take up to a year off from work, and receive statutory maternity pay (SMP) for almost 10 months.
SMP is equivalent to 90% of an employed woman’s average weekly earnings for the first six weeks, and then £140.98 or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks.
Men who take traditional paternity leave, in contrast, are able to spend much less time at home after the birth of a child. Statutory paternity leave in the UK grants new fathers a maximum of just two weeks off work, with pay set at £140.98 a week.
The new study was conducted by commercial law firm EMW, which said that the figures show that the shared parental leave scheme is “being significantly underused”.
Clearly, men are still being deterred from taking more time off work after the birth of a child – perhaps by the “cultural stigma of men taking lengthy amounts of time off work to care for their children”, the study authors said.
“In many cases new parents, particularly fathers, could be concerned about the impact on their career if they take lengthy time off,” they wrote.
Earlier this year, a cross-party group of MPs urged the government to take action to improve shared parental leave. One of their suggested measures – later rejected by Theresa May’s cabinet – was to introduce three months of non-transferable paternal leave for the second parent.
“We are particularly worried about gendered working culture that means that many men are worried that taking leave will be viewed negatively by their employer and limit their career,” wrote the MPs.
Watch: What’s the best advice your mum ever gave you?
However, the most recent research suggests that gender norms may not be the only thing deterring men from taking the leave. Under the scheme, both parents get a maximum of £140.98 a week – and the study’s authors say that this may not be enough of a financial incentive for new parents to split childcare duties.
“This step down in income could be a deterrent against claiming, as many new parents may find they need at least one or both of their full salaries,” says the study.
In a recent letter to the Financial Times, a man with a four-month-old baby said that the allowance allocated to parents under the scheme was “a laughably low alternative to working hard in order to meet my newly enlarged family’s needs.
“I would genuinely love to spend more time with my daughter but this scheme is simply not fit for purpose,” wrote Krzysztof Lasocki, from Kingston-Upon-Thames.
So we’re grappling with two thorny issues here; we don’t just have to dismantle archaic ideas about who should look after children, we also have to campaign for a shared parental leave scheme that doesn’t make couples feel like they are being financially penalised at a time when they really can’t afford it.
To paraphrase Coldplay: nobody said achieving gender-equal parenting would be easy. But does it really have to be this hard?
Images: Tanja Heffner / Rex Features / Priscilla du Preez