In April to June 2021, three in four mothers with dependent children were in work in the UK. This was the highest level reached in the equivalent quarter over 20 years. During the same period, 92.1% of fathers were employed. Parents – particularly mothers – have become a popular group of employees, and it is time for employers to consider how to deal with this workforce.
Maternity and Paternity Leave
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has confirmed that the Australian government would boost paid parental leave from 18 to 26 weeks.
This has started a conversation about how people deal with childcare responsibilities when they have work. In particular, the discrepancy between working mothers and working fathers when it comes to time off work to care for a new born.
In the UK, working mothers are entitled to 52 weeks’ Maternity Leave, provided they meet certain eligibility requirements. Statutory Maternity Pay is paid for up to 39 weeks of that time. For six weeks, mothers receive 90% of their average weekly earnings before tax, and for the next 39 weeks, mothers receive either 90% of their average weekly earnings or £156.66 a week, whichever is lower. It is up to each employer whether or not they wish to pay their employee for the remainder of the Maternity Leave.
Fathers on the other hand are only entitled to one or two weeks’ paid Paternity Leave, the rate being £156.66 a week or 90% of the employee’s average weekly earnings, whichever is lower.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding the law in this area, with multiple conflicting views. Many believe that two weeks of Paternity Leave is nowhere near enough time for fathers to bond with their babies. It also means that mothers are left to bear the burden of being the main child carer. Mothers being away from work for longer is also one of the reasons that contribute to the gender pay gap.
Shared Parental Leave
Since the introduction of Shared Parental Leave (SPL) in 2015, the law has given working parents the chance to be on potentially equal footing regarding new born babies. In the first year after a child is born or adopted, parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay between them, provided they are eligible to do so.
SPL sounds like a popular route, even for parents who may not necessarily wish to take part. It offers fathers the option to spend more time with their child, and mothers the option to go back to work sooner but not compromise on the aspect of a child having a parent heavily involved in the first year of their life.
However, organisations such as Maternity Action, the Fawcett Society, and the National Childbirth Trust have called for SPL to be re-evaluated because they view it as an unfair system. This is backed by Maternity Action’s findings that take-up among eligible couples is only between 3% and 4%. The organisations have the view that parental leave should be on a ‘take it or lose it’ basis, rather than on a shared basis.
What employers offer
There are employers who are known to have ‘good’ parental leave policies. Etsy, for example, offers a gender blind approach to parental leave. All of Etsy’s employees have the option of taking 26 weeks of fully paid leave in the first year of their child’s life.
Being a parent-friendly employer arguably goes beyond offering parents time off during the first year of their child’s life. Employers could offer flexible working arrangements that allow parents to be more involved in their children’s upbringing. With changing social attitudes, especially as a result of the pandemic, many people now expect to have a more work-life balance. Working remotely or hybrid working have become more of a norm, and have certainly been seen as favourable by many groups. The majority of working parents want to maintain homeworking and hybrid working practices. This is no surprise as working from home cuts down on commuting time, and allows people to get things done during their lunch hour. All of this means more time could be spent on family, rather than on work.
Atkins, a multinational building consultancy, is considered to be a parent-friendly employer, as it offers a range of benefits including job sharing, part-time working, mobile working and working at home. Staff can also buy up to 15 days additional holiday. Atkins also has Return-To-Work bonuses that encourage working parents to go back to work.
Flexible working requests
The statutory scheme to request flexible working is limited to employees with at least 26 weeks’ continuous service, however, there is nothing to stop any member of staff asking their employer to vary their working pattern, regardless of their length of service or employment status. Employers need to be aware that they may be on the receiving end of an indirect discrimination claim if they reject an employee’s request for flexible working. As an example, if an employee wishes to vary her hours due to her childcare arrangements and her request is denied, she may be able to bring an indirect sex discrimination claim.
Although such claims are often brought by women, it is possible for men to claim discrimination if their employer rejects their request to work part-time due to having childcare responsibilities. This would be the case only if that same employer allowed female employees to work part-time in order to care for their children.
Key takeaways for employers
- A workforce that is happy with its work-life balance is more likely to want to remain with its employer. This is a benefit that employers may find worth the sacrifice of offering better parental leave policies, seeing as staff retention has become a growing concern for many.
- Encouraging SPL could help women go back to work sooner and combat the gender pay gap.
- Offering flexible working arrangements for one group of parents over another may open up doors to discrimination claims.