Why we need to improve parental leave

Article By Alice Heggie

Last month the insurance company Aviva announced its plan to offer equal parental leave of up to a year, with 26 weeks of basic full pay “regardless of gender, sexual orientation or how they became a parent”. This is a huge step for equality in the work place, with time out to care for children being one of the biggest contributing factors to the prevailing gender pay gap.

Every single employee at Aviva’s UK offices will be entitled to their own allocation of parental leave, even if both parents are Aviva employees, with no eligibility criteria relating to service or earnings. This means that Aviva are going very much above and beyond the minimum legal requirement for parental leave, and while there have been significant improvements in this area in recent years but there’s still a long way to go.

Earlier this year The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission revealed some shocking figures in a report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination: around one in nine mothers reported that soon after they returned to work they were either dismissed from their role, made compulsorily redundant or treated so poorly that they felt they had no choice other than to leave. Women Returners also performed their own survey of women currently on a career break and a third of the responders said that they expect to be demoted after returning to work. Almost 50% the women surveyed also said that they were looking for full time work, but the number of women successfully returning to full time work after maternity leave remains quite low. When employee benefits organisation My Family Care interviewed HR directors about parental leave the responses were very telling: the majority said that taking leave may be “frowned upon or career limiting”. So it is evident that the culture and expectations around parental leave needs to change.

To try and tackle the issue our Government introduced Shared Parental Leave in April 2015. It was intended to give parents more flexibility and to help women return to work more easily, which would ultimately go some way to reducing the pay gap. Despite similar schemes being a demonstrable success in other countries (around 9 in 10 fathers take up equivalent schemes in Sweden and Norway) our government had anticipated a low initial take-up rate (they estimated 2-8%). While they won’t officially evaluate the scheme until next year, independent research has shown uptake is even less than predicted with only 1% of couples adopting the scheme. The reason? Research is pointing towards the Gender Pay Gap again. Men, on average, earn higher salaries than women and so unsurprisingly, in a survey of 1000 workers, difference in wages was cited as the number one reason for parents not opting to share leave. So here we have a bit of chicken and egg situation: Shared Parental Leave was introduced to help close the pay gap, but parents aren’t opting into it because of the pay gap. In the same survey, the second most common reason for couples not opting for shared parental leave was employers putting pressure on male employees not to take the time off. This is backed up by research from My Family Care and the Women’s Business Council which showed that four in 10 companies have not had a single father take Shared Parental Leave. So with Aviva offering 26 weeks of full basic pay to all their employees, there is no financial reason for them to not take the time off and this policy can be seen as the company’s open support for their male employees taking time out for their children.

Aviva’s company’s group chief executive, Mark Wilson expressed that equality is very much a driver behind their new policy: “I want to live in a world where the only criteria for success is someone’s talent, not their gender.

“Treating parents equally will help make this happen. We want Aviva to be a progressive, inclusive, welcoming place to work. It’s good for our people and it’s also good business sense.”

We very much agree and sincerely hope that this will inspire other companies to follow suit. With young women more likely to become “Economically Inactive” than men once they become parents, we need to support more mothers to gain and retain employment. If employers can support and encourage families to share childcare responsibilities more equally then it can only serve to have a positive impact on not only the pay gap and the work-life balance, but our culture and gender equality as a whole.