A government inquiry is to consider whether a ‘fatherhood penalty’ exists. Levelling this playing field could help women to progress at work
Giving fathers a fairer deal at work when it comes to employers allowing them to spend more time at home with their children could help to close the gender pay gap.
Under the present rules, fathers can take up to two weeks of paternity leave on statutory paternity pay following the birth of their child. They also have the right to parental leave, which entitles them to a further 18 weeks of unpaid leave. Alternatively, they can take advantage of shared parental leave, which allows couples to divvy up their total parental leave allowance as they wish.
In reality, when making decisions about how much family leave to take and which parent should take more, most families will consider how the impact of this decision on their household income. If one parent earns significantly more than the other, this individual would probably not choose to take advantage of shared parental leave, preferring to keep their partner at home with the baby.
The net result of this situation is that many moderate and high-earning fathers are bound to their desks for financial reasons. Many prefer to take two weeks of annual leave on full pay, rather than use their paternity leave allowance, which would only qualify them for statutory paternity pay. Some fathers are also concerned about the effect that taking additional family leave, or flexible working, could have on their career progression. This could also be a barrier to them having more of an active role in caring for their children.
Earlier this week, the women and equalities select committee launched an inquiry into the treatment of fathers at work. Specifically, the inquiry will consider whether dads are becoming the victims of the “fatherhood penalty” by requesting part-time or flexible working to spend more time fulfilling their caring responsibilities at home.
This inquiry is timely in view of the present interest in closing the gender pay gap. Any move to level the playing field for parents of either gender when it comes to caring for young children would help to remove any tendency there might for employers to discriminate against mothers who want to spend more time at home.
Forward-thinking employers who want to promote a healthy work-life balance should do more to encourage flexible working for all employees. Under the present rules an employer must consider all requests fairly; rejecting them only on eligibility grounds, or for one or more of the prescribed statutory reasons.
However, while they are intended to support employees, flexible working schemes can become a contentious area if they are not well managed. Disputes can sometimes occur if an employee feels that their request has been treated unfairly or they have been discriminated against. Employers should communicate decisions clearly and allow time to discuss the outcome with their employee. Informing workers that flexible working schemes exist to support them, but that the needs of the business must be prioritised, can help to minimise the risk of bad feeling.
Fathers deserve a fair deal from their employers. They should be able to take parental leave without feeling that their career is being jeopardised, and employers should stay openminded about how they can support fathers who want to spend more time with their children. Getting this right could be win-win for all concerned, not least because it could help to let women continue working and ensure that both parents are treated equally in every respect.