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Fatherhood – take it at your own risk

International Men’s Day is a moment to interrogate how Britain’s parental leave system continues to exclude men from family life – and exclude women from the workforce.

Agnish Ray
19 November 2016
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Fathers attend a meeting of the EU Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality to support paternity leave legislation. Thierry Charlier/ AP/ Press Association Images

In what seemed to be a big step towards closing the enormously gender-inequality in the UK’s system of statutory parental leave (which allows women statutory parental leave of up to 52 weeks, while men have just two), it became legal last year for mothers and fathers to share a period of parental leave totalling 50 weeks equally between them.

It was hoped that this shift to shared parental leave (SPL) would cultivate a society in which men could identify more strongly as caring and nurturing fathers, setting progressive examples of masculinity for future generations, and in which a woman was not automatically assumed as the primary caregiver taking absence from work.

However, more than a year and a half later, the impact looks negligible. Recent figures from the HMRC show that only 4% of new fathers in the UK have opted to take any additional time off work.

Despite this, British businesses have been calling on the government for maternity pay to be extended even further, and for next week’s Autumn Statement to budget for this. The proposals are presented as a means of keeping more women in the workforce, under the premise that parental leave is something that women look for in an employer. But a move like this would fail to address deep gender division in what we think of as parental and professional responsibility.

The law has changed – but the culture has not

Progress at legal level often means something very different in practice. Speaking ahead of International Men’s Day 2016, Jeremy Davies of the Fatherhood Institute tells me that not enough organisations are actively encouraging employees to take shared parental leave. “It’s one thing to change a policy on paper,” he says, “but it’s another to actually change the culture to the point where an individual dad feels confident enough to ask for this stuff. If employers are serious about cultural change, there’s still a lot to do.”

He believes that it is often difficult for employees to navigate the technicalities of shared parental leave; and while many employers provide enhanced maternity packages, exceeding statutory requirements in order to attract female employees, this generosity is often not mirrored in shared parental leave provisions.

An employment lawyer at UK law firm Slater Heelis concedes that “people won’t want to take shared parental leave if it’s detrimental to their career”. But having a baby already disproportionately affects women’s careers, and is a key influencing factor in the lack of women in senior positions and in an ever-widening gender pay gap. So the acceptance that the low uptake of SPL is down to men’s unwillingness to damage their careers is troubling because it indicates how entrenched we are in a culture that assumes a woman’s professional and financial autonomy to be less important.

“Choice” is often figured as the ultimate, unchangeable decider. That when given the choice, it will invariably be the man who continues to work – because women have more natural maternal instincts; or because women are more closely bonded to a newborn baby; or because men are less naturally gifted in childcare. But considering the lack of compensation and flexibility offered for men taking SPL, as well as a culture that tells men they are incompetent parents and women that earning money is less important for them, the external influence on these “choices” is deeply problematic. 

Are we too insistent on the biology of parenthood?

While carrying and giving birth to a child is a powerful experience which creates a deep bond between a mother and her newborn, parental leave is not just about giving birth – it is also about the practicalities of raising a child. The over-insistence on the biology of childbirth when it comes to developing parenthood legislation fails to recognise that much of childcare can be provided by parents of both genders. It also puts an unfair pressure on women to be a certain kind of mother, and have a kind of relationship with her child, which can have dangerous consequences, like the social shaming of women who are passionate about their careers, and even post-natal depression.

Gendered biology has throughout history been exploited for the means of maintaining divisions in society. Women were denied the vote because it was supposed that their emotions inhibited them from making rational decisions. And now, still, parenthood laws are too insistent on certain preconceptions of how gendered bodies work, and on the biological, heterosexual nuclear family model, which relies on strict conventions of male and female identity.

So when interrogating men’s abilities to look after children, some of the most compelling examples are to be found in male same-sex couples, where roles of “maternity” and “paternity” are not automatically allocated to either one parent or the other. Phil Reay-Smith, a 42-year-old London-based media consultant and former TV presenter, adopted a child with his partner Michael nearly eight years ago. At this time, before SPL was legal, an adoptive same-sex couple had to elect a primary parent (allowed the equivalent of maternity leave) and a secondary parent (allowed the equivalent of paternity leave).

So what happens when two parents make childcare decisions without the influence of society’s divided gender conventions? For Phil and Michael, it was largely a financial decision. This is undoubtedly also often also the main factor for heterosexual couples; but the troubling conclusion there is that the gender pay gap is still so deeply delineated that in most given male-female couples the father is almost always likely to be the bigger earner. Evidently, the choices made by new parents are not just naturally pertinent to their gender – they are driven by larger socio-economic structures that are still deeply divided by gender.

Things aren’t working – but there is still room for improvement

The enormous disparity between paternity leave and maternity leave is one of the key hindrances to gender equality in society. It is a system that disallows men to truly identify with parenthood, belittling them to the point that they do not feel capable of raising a child. But, as families with two male parents clearly illustrate, there is nothing inherent to men that disables them from taking the same amount of parenting responsibility as women. “We, and other gay parents we know, are absolute proof that men can do it,” says Phil. “Men can take a year off work and look after their kids. Men can be the ‘mum’.”

A big part of the reason SPL has not created greater quality is it entails the mother officially bringing an end to her maternity leave in order to give part of her time off to the father – instead of the father being allocated a bigger period of time of his own (like “daddy quotas” in countries like Sweden). As the Slater Heelis employment experts confirm, “a non-transferable right to further parental leave, paid at an income-related level may persuade more fathers to take further leave” – so there is still room for improvement.

Given that the World Economic Forum has also reiterated the strong case for greater gender equality in this area, we need to stop thinking of parental leave as a women’s issue. Motherhood should not be an excuse for the lack of women in senior positions; careers should not be an excuse for a man to be denied the full fatherhood experience. In a world in which becoming a parent had equal impacts on both men and women’s lives, neither gender would be categorically disadvantaged or have to suffer professionally and financially for the very fact of parenthood.

We are still in early days – perhaps a year and a half is too soon for new laws like this to really see any tangible impact. Nonetheless, unless we recognise that more needs to be done, fatherhood is still too often something offered to men at their own risk.

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