Tuesday, 6 December 2011

This is not the paternity leave policy you were looking for

So, this is a bit off the scientific/psychological beaten path, but since we get a good amount of traffic from people in the UK it seemed worth mentioning...
Image via Hammonton Photography
You might be aware that the UK government recently did something awesome by giving employed fathers the right to take up to 26 weeks off work during the first year of their child's life. This was a massive step forward from the previous Ordinary Paternity Leave policy, which gave dads a whopping 2 weeks off work. In terms of government mandated pay, the scheme is pretty close to the maternity leave policy; dads receive the lesser of £128.73 a week, or 90% of average weekly pay. One difference, is that fathers can only begin their leave after the mother takes 20 weeks of her leave.

Many employers (universities among them) offer additional pay for maternity leave to employees within certain salary band (which is great- thanks!). But, (here's where things aren't so great), some employers don't feel that this extra pay should extend equally to paternity leave (warning - I don't have national data on this; my conclusion is based on the policies I've seen from a handful of institutions). For example, a maternity leave plan might offer extra pay to mothers until 26 or 31 weeks, while fathers who start their leave at 21 weeks would receive no extra pay (beyond the statutory rate mentioned above). This means that, in practice, maternity leave policies are more financially generous than paternity leave policies. Sharing leave between parents is often more financially detrimental to a family than having the mother take the entire leave.

I could better understand employers' positions if the new law allowed both parents to take leave at the same time (because this would cost the employer twice as much money over that period). But, fathers can only take leave if the mother has officially returned to work (she is also not allowed to take annual leave to extend this period). This means that the total amount of time that parents can take leave from work remains the same. The only difference is whether the mother or the father is the one at home.

Obviously, equating paternity and maternity pay would hit some institutions harder than others. Employers with a predominantly male work force would find themselves paying out substantial sums in leave pay for the first time. In contrast, business that employ predominantly women would likely save money as some mothers return to work weeks or months earlier than they would have done without the new law. Also, to the extent that the gender pay gap remains, employers who base additional leave pay on salary (half salary plus statutory maternity pay is a common option) would be paying out more money to cover higher paid paternity leave.

I can see why employers facing these sorts of situations would not want to shell out extra money on paternity leave. But, that doesn't mean that having different policies is okay. It's not. Creating financial incentives for mothers to take more leave than fathers is unfair for two reasons:

1) It is unfair to fathers who are less able to equally participate in early parenting. Cultural expectations of fathers are slowly shifting and this is reflected in the new law. But, individual employer implementation of the law reinforces the idea that "it's great if a dad wants to help out with child care" rather than "it is a father's responsibility to share equally in child care."

2) It is unfair to mothers who will continue to take the hit in terms of career advancement and employment opportunities. Check out these popular (and depressing) news reports on the subject.

The government reports that it will update the paternity leave policy by 2015; let's hope that new law includes a mandate for employers to offer equal benefits to mothers and fathers.

Do you know what the paternity leave policy is where you work?

*I should mention that I am an American living in the UK. As such, I am grateful every single day to live in a country that has ANY sort of comprehensive paid maternity/paternity leave*

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