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  • Evie Townend

The Paternity Gap: Why is Parental Leave Still Gendered?

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Becoming a parent is about as life-changing an event as they come. For many, parenthood presents a fork in the road where couples diverge into traditional gender roles. Men concentrate on paid work while women are responsible for childcare, embedding stereotypical ideas about masculinity, femininity, and family dynamics.

The Paternity Gap

Research by the London School of Economics found that men and women who lost paid work during the Coronavirus pandemic did not resume housework and childcare tasks in equal measures. Despite the growth in women’s labour participation, the pressure to perform domestic duties falls disproportionately onto women, highlighting how internalised this division of labour has become.

Therefore, we can understand a lot about a country’s commitment to gender equality through the parental leave policies they have in place to tackle this difference.

The UK’s parental leave policies

Before 2015, the UK had a shocking disparity between the leave offered to mothers and fathers when having a baby: this has been titled the Paternity Gap. Women who have worked for the same employer for 26 weeks are entitled to 52 weeks of Statutory Maternity Leave (SML) and 39 weeks of Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP), as well as a mandatory two weeks leave immediately post birth. This compares to a mere two weeks of paid Paternity Leave which fathers can take after the baby’s birth.

In efforts to redress this imbalance, a policy for Shared Parental Leave and Pay (SPL and SPP) was created. Under this scheme, parents can split the parenting equally, sharing up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay. This gives the option to alternate between parents, separate the leave into blocks or take the leave together.

In theory, this facilitates a more equal approach to the early days of childcare, lessening the burden on women and affording men the time to bond with their new-born. However, research from the University of Birmingham showed that in 2018, only 1% of couples eligible to claim SPL took advantage of the policy. So why is this new policy failing to bridge the Paternity Gap?

The Paternity Gap

Limitations to SPL and SPP

Academics attribute the low uptake of SPL to society’s deeply entrenched gender roles. Many men cite fears of being marginalised, mocked, or taken less seriously as deterring them from taking parental leave. Specifically, 58% of men admit to concerns that future career prospects will be negatively affected, contradicting the social pressures on fathers to offer financial support and security. This points to the need for a cultural shift whereby the role of a father expands from providing cash to care.

"58% of men are concerned that taking paternity leave will affect their career prospects"

David Freed, founder of the blog ‘Dads’ Turn’, and James Millar, are authors of a book called ‘Dads Don’t Babysit’. This ridicules the instances when they’ve been asked whether they are babysitting their own children, assuming their role as secondary carers. Instead of the ‘lazy-dumb-Dad’ archetype found on TV, epitomised by Homer Simpson, they assert the need for ‘fatherhood champions’ to reimagine masculinity to include being a loving, active father.

Last year, the Advertising Standards Agency announced it was looking to outlaw gender stereotypical parenting, which Freed hopes will set an example for Ofcom and other regulatory bodies to follow across television and media. However, there are also important adjustments that can be made on the ground to create a workplace culture where the entitlements of men are made visible, men in leadership roles act as role models and protection of employee rights are reassured.

The Paternity Gap

The Price v Powys County Council case shows how there often remain financial differences for men taking leave. In 2018, Mr Price filed a case for sexual discrimination against his employer when he discovered that he would be receiving less money under his SPP than those going on SML or Statutory Adoption Leave (SAL). This was owed to a company policy enhancing maternity and adoption pay above the statutory rate.

While his first case was rejected on the grounds that SML had the additional purpose of prenatal preparation and postpartum recovery, he made the convincing appeal that his situation was comparable to adoption parents where childcare is similarly the primary objective. Again, the tribunal argued that there were differences in both the way SAL is rolled out and in the nature of adoption, denying the grounds for discrimination.

Despite not winning his case, Mr Price’s argument questions whether company-subsidised parental leave has a problematic implication for gendered parenting, undermining the positive efforts of government SPL policies. By offering more favourable packages to women taking maternity leave, they discourage men from capitalising on their entitlement to paid leave.

Lessons from overseas

Over the last 20 years, the number of countries where paternity leave is enshrined in law has more than doubled to around 90. Scandinavian countries have been spearheading the movement with generous and forward-thinking policies that are designed to specifically encourage fathers to take leave.

‘Our hope is that we learn from these countries that have been trying over time so that you can shorten the learning curve in other countries,’ says Alison Earle, senior research associate at the World Policy Center.

Of the 69 weeks of paid parental leave offered in Sweden, 90 days are earmarked for each parent. This strategy is known as a ‘Daddy quota’ and has been implemented across Norway, Finland, and Iceland.

Going a step further, between 2008 and 2017, families in Sweden were offered a monetary bonus determined by the number of equal days of leave taken by each parent. This has proved highly effective with 90% of fathers taking 96% of the total leave available to them. Germany similarly offers a further two months of paid leave if both parents claim the initial two months of benefits.

"quotas are an essential means of ensuring childcare becomes less gender differentiated"

While quotas have come under controversial criticism for infringing on the parents’ rights to choose, academic Tobias Axelsson asserts that they are an essential means of ensuring childcare becomes less gender differentiated. While they are an initial first step, the hope is that overtime they will become less necessary as equal parenting becomes the social norm.

Paternity leave policies must also have greater flexibility over a sustained period of time. While the rate of pay is reduced, Norway offers an additional paid year following normal parental leave. This is important because the mother may have to take maternity leave in the immediate months following the child’s birth, due to breastfeeding, but this then allows the father to resume primary care when the child is older and weaned.

The Paternity Gap

The benefits of bridging the Paternity Gap

Bridging the Paternity Gap has benefits that extend from the family unit and workplace to society as a whole. Research emphasises the importance of the early days of parenting, improving confidence and setting a precedent for hands-on involvement. It is not a person’s sex that determines whether they are a ‘natural parent’, but the time they spend alone with their child in its first few months.

A paper published in 2019 reflects the remarkable long-term benefits of paternity leave; children whose fathers opted for at least two weeks leave report feeling closer to them at nine years old than the children of fathers who didn’t.

"women face an average wage loss of 4-6% when they become a parent, while men's wages increase by 6%"

As well as alleviating the childcare burden on women and facilitating their return to work, paternity leave equalises the subconscious barriers that can prevent women from progressing in their career. This is supported by statistics showing an average woman incurs a wage loss of 4-6% per child, while a man’s wage increases by 6% when becoming a father.

Many women report feeling a double standard whereby, unlike the father, they have to choose between being a mother or having a career. Often, a decision to return to work can leave women feeling judged for having a lower commitment to and love for their child, creating a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. Men, on the other hand, are socially praised for having both a family and career.

By men opting to take time off, it de-stigmatises the act of leave-taking and ensures that women’s careers stop being disproportionately penalised. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report reports that Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland are in the lead for closing the gender pay gap, highlighting the role that generous parental leave policies have in improving female labour market participation and overall gender equality at work.

By reducing the social expectations and pressures on each gender, it allows families to find an arrangement that puts the child’s needs at the centre, ultimately nurturing healthier, happier relationships. Such balance proves to have significant effects on the family with divorce rates proving lower for families who have shared parental leave.

In attempts to decode the gender restraints of parenting, there is much that can be learned from non-heteronormative parents in how they distribute leave and financial responsibilities. This refers to relationships that are outside the gender and sexual norms, including homosexual relationships. Such observations can be valuable in establishing how couples can navigate parenting on gender-neutral territory.

For more resources on this topic, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.

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