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20 years after introducing paternity leave, why we need to do more for fathers

By July 5, 2022August 17th, 2022Employee Benefits
Fathers at work

READ  In the 20 years since UK fathers were given two weeks’ paid paternity leave, attitudes about fathers’ roles at home have changed considerably, yet what is on offer remains unchanged.  Paternity leave is still only two weeks, and paid at less than half the minimum wage, relegating the UK to 28th out of 34 OECD countries in terms of paid leave available to fathers. Why have we made so little progress?

Standard paternity leave

Around 200,000 fathers claim paternity pay each year, compared with around 300,000 mothers on maternity pay or maternity allowance.

The gap in take up is in part because one in four fathers aren’t even eligible. Paternity leave and pay isn’t a ‘day one’ right, like paid maternity leave.  You need to have worked for the same employer for 26 weeks, for example, which knocks out over 40,000 new fathers every year.  And you’re not eligible if you are self-employed. While self-employed mothers can claim a maternity allowance (the same as statutory maternity pay) there’s no equivalent allowance for self-employed fathers.

The rate of paternity pay is a barrier for many fathers too. It’s just gone ‘up’ to £156.66 per week. Many men take annual leave rather than lose money by claiming their statutory right to leave.

This really is not very encouraging, or very generous, to new fathers.

Attempts to improve

Well paid leave for fathers has such well evidenced benefits

On child outcomes

On couple longevity

On mothers earnings

And, in response to that, we have made a couple of attempts to improve things.

Additional Paternity Leave (APL) came in very briefly in 2011. It provided up to 26 weeks’ leave for fathers. But only once the mother had returned to work, and paid only at the very low statutory rate for a maximum 19 weeks. Take up was pitifully low.

Then Shared Parental Leave (SPL) appeared in 2015. This provided up to 50 weeks leave, including up to 37 weeks pay at statutory rate, less any weeks taken by the mother. Take up was less pitiful than for APL. But still pitiful.

It’s true SPL is a more flexible form of transferable leave, and better in that it enables simultaneous leave and encourages a long period of leave by the father (insofar as less than half the minimum wage can be said to encourage anything).

But in truth, it’s still just transferable maternity leave.  SPL was an improvement. But it still depends on the mother to want to, or be able to, transfer her leave.  Women take, on average, 39 weeks (the period that is paid), and almost half take more than that. There’s not much left for fathers, and what is left, is unpaid.  And mind-numbingly complex to work out and administer.

Breaking gender stereotypes abroad

Our attempts to improve leave have, so far, still hinged on old-fashioned gender stereotypes. They continue to enshrine the belief the child is the mother’s choice, or problem. She is the primary carer.  He is the optional extra pair of hands.  It bakes in all the assumptions about caring and working that hinder women at work and frustrate men who want more involvement at home.

Evidence from other countries, who do these things better than we do, tells us that fathers’ leave needs to be well paid, to encourage and enable take-up.  And it has to be the father’s alone, by right.

Sweden and Iceland offer a non-transferable fathers’ quota. Take-up is much higher (90%) than in Denmark (24%) and Slovenia (6%), which don’t.  And you can see the impact most clearly in a single country – Iceland again, where fathers averaged 39 days of leave in 2001.  After the fathers’ quota was introduced on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis, this rose to 103 days.

Back in the UK

UK companies that have introduced leave on full pay for fathers show the same.  Aviva is one of a growing number to give 26 weeks on full pay to every new parent they employ.  Their mothers average 44 weeks leave, their fathers 24 – nearly the full 26 they are entitled to, illustrating sharply how fathers’ leave is dependent on wage replacement. Before the offer of six months paid leave was introduced, new fathers at Aviva took just two weeks on average.

Clearly, the appetite is there. Men want to take leave during the first year of their child’s life. And we have known for years how to enable them to do this. Pay them, and give them their own leave.

Maternity Action’s 6-6-6 campaign seems to have got it right.  Six months’ maternity leave is reserved for the mother, to support her physical recovery from childbirth and to breastfeed if she chooses, and a further six months of non-transferable parental is available for each parent after that, to enable both to care for the child.  This model doesn’t undermine women’s rights to maternity leave – they can still take 52 weeks in total, should they wish. And it’s worth remembering that 52 weeks’ leave is nowhere near excessive. The UK ranks at number 34 of 41 OECD countries for maternity leave.

The 6-6-6 model also provides men with an opportunity to spend real time with their new family at a time when they are most needed at home, and most likely establish confidence and feel comfortable in their caring role.

We need to stop lurking at the bottom of the league tables, missing opportunities to improve family life, working life and, I’d hazard, to help close the gender pay gap too. After 20 years of very limited progress, it’s high time for meaningful change.


A shorter version of this piece was published in Employee Benefits on 5th July 2022