Dr Holly Birkett and Dr Sarah Forbes ran a forum in Westminster last week to showcase The Equal Parenting Project’s research on the take-up of Shared Parental Leave (SPL). The event, hosted by the Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, brought together policy makers, civil servants and thought-leaders to discuss how to achieve gender equality in the workplace by encouraging the take up of SPL.

Sarah and Holly are investigating what is preventing families from taking SPL as well as how organisations promote and enhance the policy. SPL, which has been available to eligible parents since 2015, promotes gender equality, allows fathers to spend more time with their children, support mothers and can support child development and developing a stronger family bonds. A key motivation to drive the uptake of SPL is to encourage more fathers to take on unpaid labour in the home since the child penalty is a key contributor to the gender pay gap. Despite many families wishing to take SPL, only 3% of those who are entitled claimed shared parental pay in 2017/18. A focus of the forum was to highlight the barriers to take up of the policy and to discuss what could be done to break these down and improve the uptake in the future.

During the forum, His Excellency Stefán Haukur Jóhannesson, the UK Ambassador for Iceland, emphasised the importance of equality in childcare by explaining how Shared Parental Leave has been used in Nordic countries to advance equality. Following this contribution and the findings of and Holly and Sarah’s latest research, the delegates of the forum, which included MPs representing all the main political parties, civil servants and third sectors organisations leading in the field split into two groups to discuss the role of organisations and Government policy in encouraging fathers to be move involved in childcare in the first year.  An important topic of discussion surrounded culture change and how this might be achieved. Delegates discussed the need for more men to be included in discussions and moving forward, it was suggested that we need to rethink the policy as SPL helps in terms of flexibility but doesn’t give dads primary responsibility.

The discussions also highlighted that organisations might be interested in enhancing the ShPP offering if it was framed around retention of talent and that organisations should be encouraged to link enhancement within the gender pay gap reporting narrative and use it as a strategy to address their gap. Importantly, these discussions were not limited to those currently eligible to take the policy as Tracy Brabin MP, who attended, raised concerns about self-employed parents who are often overlooked in policy discussions around equal parenting, an issue which is also highlighted by Sarah and Holly’s research.

Overall, the event helped to expand our understanding of the current context of the low take up of SPL and highlighted the structural issues in the UK and how there are no easy solutions or quick fixes to increase uptake. The Forum highlighted Shared Parental Leave as a cross-party issue which is vital to securing gender equality in the workplace.

Holly and Sarah will be publishing the findings from survey research they are currently undertaking, over the summer and later in the year they will be launching a ‘Fathers in the Workplace’ toolkit to help organisations better support fathers taking on caring duties.