Comment: Enhanced parental leave can help bring balance to the boardroom

Unequal division of childcare is a key reason for the underrepresenation of women at senior levels, says Kerr. Picture: Contributed
Unequal division of childcare is a key reason for the underrepresenation of women at senior levels, says Kerr. Picture: Contributed
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It has been reported that as one of her last moves before ­leaving Downing Street Theresa May will attempt to introduce 12 weeks’ paid ­paternity leave for new fathers. Separately, the Court of Appeal recently made a landmark decision on fathers’ pay during shared parental leave.

Two fathers argued at the Court of Appeal that it is discriminatory for employers to pay fathers on shared parental leave less than mothers on maternity leave. They were unsuccessful, as the court found that, as the two types of leave had different purposes, an employer can legally offer enhanced maternity pay without offering enhanced shared parental pay.

Currently, new fathers are entitled to two weeks’ paternity leave paid at a statutory rate of pay. They do have the option to take further leave as shared parental leave, but well under 10 per cent of new fathers do so. This may be because, for many families, the father taking shared parental leave makes no financial sense; it is currently unusual for employers to offer enhanced pay to those (mostly fathers) ­taking shared parental leave.

Many employers will have taken ­comfort from the court ruling, and will be ­concerned at the prospect of 12 weeks’ paid paternity leave. In times of economic uncertainty it is understandable that they would like to keep their benefits bill as low as possible. That said, some companies are going above and beyond – there are those which have already introduced enhanced shared parental pay, with some even deciding to give both parents additional parental leave as well as enhanced pay.

So, what is the incentive for offering increased employee benefits when there is no requirement to do so? There are a number of compelling reasons. It demonstrates genuine commitment to gender equality in the workforce and there is a wealth of evidence showing that this has significant financial benefits for businesses. Employers concerned about cost can draw on the experience of countries which have reduced the gap between maternal and paternal benefits. For ­example, in Norway the government subsidises parental leave (for both parents) and early childcare. Studies show the cost is more than offset by the GDP increase created by mothers staying in the workforce.

For many UK families, there is a ­financial imbalance towards the mother taking all available leave after a child is born. Enhanced pay for shared parental leave would help correct this, giving families more freedom to decide how leave should be split. We have clients who have ­introduced enhanced shared parental pay and have seen a significant uptake in fathers taking shared parental leave.

But why is childcare a business issue? ­Evidence shows that a business financially benefits from gender diversity at all levels of seniority and that unequal division of childcare is a key reason for ­women being underrepresented at senior ­levels.

As well as the financial impact, having few women at senior levels has a large impact on gender pay gap figures, which must be ­published annually by companies with more than 250 employees. A large gender pay gap can cause reputational issues, and make it more difficult to attract new talent. This is particularly so in industries perceived to be male dominated; introducing enhanced shared parental pay is a practical step for employers to show they are serious about addressing a gender pay gap.

Businesses that are serious about equal opportunities understand that it is not always about meeting the legal minimum requirements but instead looking to initiatives which help remove barriers to equality. Such an enlightened approach not only supports greater employee engagement and a genuine commitment to solving the gender pay gap issue, but could prove an important tool in terms of recruiting and retaining talented staff who could be tempted to look elsewhere.

- Victoria Kerr, associate at Pinsent Masons.