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It takes two to make a baby

Recent changes increasing the right to paternity leave have led to fears that men taking up to 26 weeks may have a negative impact on employers. Tricia Walker, partner within the Employment Law team of Paull & Williamsons LLP, explores.

Statutory parental leave upon the birth of a child has traditionally been mostly centred on leave for the mother. Previously, because only women were afforded the opportunity of taking lengthy periods off work upon the birth of a child, the unintended consequence was that despite individuals’ skills and talents young women, generally, we are perhaps viewed as a less attractive prospect to employers. In today’s world of equality should men be encouraged to have a more active role in the responsibilities of childcare and will recent changes increasing the right to paternity leave influence how people think about that?

In 2008 Sir Alan Sugar (before he became Lord Sugar) made the controversial comment: “If someone comes into an interview and you think to yourself ‘there is a possibility that this woman might have a child and therefore take time off’ it is a bit of a psychological negative thought”. Whilst that comment was widely criticised, considering the potential impact it can have when a woman goes on maternity leave (especially for small businesses), some businesses may have quietly had some sympathy with that view. Will that view now change so as to apply to both men and women equally, given that there is now the possibility for both parents to take a significant portion of time off when they have a child?

As ever, there are concerns that the impact of the introduction of 26 weeks additional paternity leave may hit small businesses hardest and there are other practical difficulties about how the concept of “shared” leave will be policed and not abused. The Federation of Small Businesses has raised concerns that the further future changes the Government are proposing, which could allow both parents to take off time in chunks rather than in one block, would make administration of the leave far more complicated than it already is.

The theory is that the impact of the recent changes on business should not be so severe since the mother has to return to work in order for a man to qualify for up to 26 weeks additional paternity leave. However, the inescapable fact is that previously a woman had an entitlement to up to 52 weeks maternity leave but now, jointly, that period of shared maternity and paternity leave can be up to 63 weeks. There is still a lot of social change to come before changes to parental leave are fully felt and understood. I don’t have children and so I often wonder how working parents manage to juggle work with looking after their family. In fact, in all honesty, I am more in awe of how women cope. Whilst equality for women off on maternity leave and returning to the workplace is now accepted, the reality is that in the home women still bear the much larger responsibility of caring for children.

However, if I was to choose to have family statistics show that, as a woman, I am likely to bear the heavier childcare responsibility and I think it would be naive to suggest that that wouldn’t have some effect on my work. That said, with a system of time off work where the focus is on mothers, rather than shared parental leave, it perhaps makes it much more difficult for men to share that duty. It is right that we should support employees who are young mothers and fathers, and society needs to determine the extent of that support. However, that support has traditionally been mostly centred on the mother. The introduction of the concept of shared parental leave may help to address and alleviate that imbalance, as well as addressing some of the, in most cases unspoken, prejudices that young women face in the workplace.

Whatever your view on the recent changes to paternity leave entitlement, with the government proposing further increases and changes to shared parental leave in future, this is an area of evolving and potentially transformational change which may result in changing attitudes not only in the workplace but also perhaps within the family unit itself.

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