"Where’s dad?" - University of Birmingham study explores why so few eligible parents are taking Shared Parental Leave

Researchers at the University of Birmingham have found out how poor policy communication and societal expectations of parents’ roles are contributing to low take-up of shared parental leave (SPL) which is available for fathers.

Research completed by Dr Holly Birkett and Dr Sarah Forbes (Co-leads of the Equal Parenting project ) at the University of Birmingham is the most comprehensive academic research ever undertaken to examine why eligible parents do not to use their statutory entitlement to SPL in the first year after the birth or adoption of their child.

Shared Parental Leave (SPL) is a policy aimed at improving gender equality in the workplace by providing parents the opportunity to share caring duties within the first year after birth or adoption. Many parents in the United Kingdom are eligible to take SPL, but most still do not take it.

SPL is an important tool for tackling the gender pay gap which we know is partly down to the motherhood penalty women face after having/adopting their first child and taking maternity leave. Increased uptake of SPL and involvement of fathers in caring in the first year can also have significant positive impacts on child development, child/father bonding, paternal welfare and parental mental health. By driving uptake of SPL, fathers can experience the multiple rewards of being actively involved in caring for their child in the first year and support their partners to return to work should they wish to do so.

By undertaking extensive qualitative research with parents that were eligible to take SPL as well as ineligible parents, Forbes and Birkett have unveiled the complex nature of how different barriers affect different groups of parents. Notably, they found that a significant lack of knowledge exists regarding the policy and that, where parents were aware of the policy the communication was viewed as overly complex. Additionally, they found that societal expectations that mothers will be the primary caregivers are still strong and encourage parents to take on gendered roles in the home after the birth or adoption making them less likely to consider SPL.

Organisations were also identified as playing an important role in driving the uptake of SPL. Workplace culture was identified as extremely influential in preventing parents from taking SPL with fathers believing that taking time away to care for their child could impact their career. Also, many employees outlined financial considerations as particularly influential in the decision not to take SPL, especially where shared parental pay was at a statutory level and not enhanced by the organisation in the same way maternity leave often is.

The study concluded significant barriers to the uptake of SPL exist which need to be broken down, notably: organisational, cultural, communication, financial and policy barriers, while gatekeeping behaviours were also influential.

Dr Sarah Forbes said: “The benefits of using this policy are vast. To hear fathers who have used it talk about developing a stronger bond with their child, wanting to be more involved in the day-to-day activities of raising their child as well as feel their relationship with their partner has strengthened as a result of using SPL just shows what a difference using this policy can make.”

Dr Holly Birkett said: “The research demonstrates that parents often do not realise that they are eligible for SPL and Statutory Shared Parental Pay. Parents don’t realise that they can use SPL in ways which are not available through traditional Maternity, Paternity and Adoption Policies. Interviewees in our sample used SPL in a variety of ways, such as, to extend paternity leave, support their partner in the first few months, go travelling round Europe for 6 months as a family, to move through periods working and at home dependent on the needs of their family and career through the use of blocks of leave and to facilitate mothers returning to work towards the end of the first year without the baby having to go to nursery at under 1 year old”.

Dr Sarah Forbes said "Our study shows how certain barriers are inhibiting gender equality in the workplace and it is important that future efforts by organisations and citizens alike address and overcome these barriers.”

Dr Holly Birkett said: “Our research highlights that professional couples are most likely to take SPL, particularly where the mother earns more or the father’s company enhances Shared Parental Pay.”

This study was published in the academic journal titled Policy Studies and is available online. A policy brief produced by the Equal Parenting project outlines the key findings of the research and recommendations for organisations and government.

The research is part of a larger study currently being undertaken as part of the Equal Parenting project at the Birmingham Business School. The project involves multiple streams of work to understand and help the UK break down barriers to equal parenting and give all parents the opportunity to be actively involved in caring for their children.

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