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Men and babies

By Georgie Howlett

9 March 2017
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Job done, we’ve got equality in our workplace, so what’s the problem? It’s tempting to think that from the comfort of a female-empowered office like ours where our CEO is a woman, we have no gender pay gap, and where I have recently returned from maternity leave into a four-day-a-week role as a senior consultant.

Sadly, we are one of the exceptions that prove the rule, gender inequality is still very much present and correct in the UK workplace. A survey from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors found that half of British adults believe women receive fewer opportunities (promotions or pay rises at work) after returning from maternity leave than men in similar job roles.

But in some instances this is not because the desire isn’t there or even that the policies don’t exist. To take one as an example, shared parental leave has an astonishingly low take up amongst men (1% based on a survey last year). Why is this? What are the communication challenges to getting increased uptake?

Some initial barriers-to-take-up that come to mind:

  • Not many people have done it, and from what I’ve heard from other mums, the dads felt awkward asking employers because of this – it isn’t yet the social norm that it is in places like Sweden and employers are not doing enough to support and encourage male employees to take it up
  • Interestingly, a survey last year said that 55% of businesses said women refused to share their maternity leave – this is clearly more complex than a simple statistic, but it points to the fact that the format might need rethinking. As paternity specialist Tom Beardshaw says: “At present men can only take SPL if their partner loses it from her own allocation, and why would any new mother want to do this? Indeed, why would a new father want to take leave away from his partner?”
  • Raising a child, particularly when they are babies is still seen as a more “natural” role for women. Social events and networks are hugely ‘mum’ orientated, even to the extent of being called ‘mums and babies’ events or ‘music with mummy’ – it can be quite intimidating for some new fathers. At the same time, for many men, their sense of self-worth is built on their ability to earn and progress is a career. They haven’t been given the permission to value staying at home to raise their children

While there are many other clear barriers to equality in the workplace around flexibility, pay etc (you just have to read the news!), I think that this is one of the angles that perhaps hasn’t been given as much attention and, whether its shared parental leave in its current format or in another, more men taking time off to spend time at home with their children is one of the things that I think could help reduce gender inequality in the workplace in the long-term. Equality needs to come from action on all sides. It’s not just about providing flexibility to returning mothers, or generous maternity pay, or a commitment to enable part-time women to rise up the ladder, it’s also about seeing fathers spend time away from the workplace and for their careers not to be impacted by it. This comes from making ‘dad-leave’ more commonplace.

So, from a communications perspective, here are four top line suggestions for what progressive businesses could do to encourage male staff to embrace shared parental leave:

  1. Raise awareness. Remind people that you offer shared parental leave. One of the key challenges is bound to be lack of awareness. Put clear and concise ‘did you know…?’ information in bathrooms, corridors, noticeboards, or pay slips.
  2. Myth-bust. Consider holding a Q&A clinic (group / one-to-one) run by HR where people can feel free to ask questions about how it works. Make it easy.
  3. Reduce the stigma. Lead by example – if men from senior positions are seen to be taking up shared parental leave (should the situation arise!), this can help pave the way for other employees, demonstrating that it is both accepted and also that it need not have an impact on professional development.
  4. Champion. Celebrate dads who take it up and come back – there may be opportunities to profile those individuals as case studies in business media, which in turn is good leadership communications for your progressive business and will help you to foster a gender-equal workplace and attract top industry talent.

There is also this lovely photo series by Johan Bävman about Swedish dads spending time at home with their babies. This alone won’t change social norms, but every bit helps, and it’s lovely to see. As we know, social change takes time.