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Holly Birkett and Sarah Forbes
SPL Project leads Holly Birkett (Left) and Sarah Forbes (right)

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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They key findings of the study are:

  • Organisational level barriers – there was a significant lack of knowledge of the policy from Human Resource Managers (HR) and line managers in the workplace. In addition, workplace culture often negatively affected take-up. In most organisations there is generally an assumption that the mother will be the primary carer (based on duration of leave and amount of pay), and the suggestion that the father may take SPL is met with surprise and, in some cases, criticism from their own work colleagues.
  • Maternal and paternal gatekeeping – one parent’s views on their role often led to behaviours which affected the involvement of the other parent. Generally, this involved mothers drawing on maternal identities of a ‘good mother’, and other policies, such as those around breastfeeding, to dominate the childrearing duties and, at times, exclude fathers. However, there were also examples of positive maternal gatekeeping, where mothers actively encouraged father’s involvement, and paternal gatekeeping, where fathers actively ruled themselves out of childcaring by drawing on traditional normative paternal identities.
  • Policy barriers – the real or perceived complexity of SPL, as well as the limitations of the policy itself. Furthermore, the eligibility criteria excludes self-employed and some agency workers. In addition, due to a mechanism in the policy (maternal transfer) which means mothers must gift fathers their leave so fathers can take SPL, the policy itself currently encourages maternal gatekeeping.
  • Communication barriers – there is a general lack of communication, particularly from employing organisations about the policy’s workings and benefits. What communications there are often appear overly complicated, or are not timely enough. In addition, communications unrelated to the policy often inhibit take-up, for example, messages around the importance of breastfeeding.
  • The research also demonstrates that different groups are likely to experience SPL in different ways. Three key factors signified how people experienced these barriers and how likely they were to use SPL. These were: socio-economic background and job role, education and information seeking skills and ethnicity. Dual-earning couples with professional roles, or those where mothers earned more, or were more ambitious, than fathers, were more likely to know about SPL and more likely to use it.

Based on these findings the following recommendations could help organisations and Government significantly increase take-up of SPL.

  • Where it is possible to do so, organisations should explore enhancing ShPP in the same way they do Maternity Pay.
  • Evaluate, and where appropriate address, the workplace culture and subcultures surrounding the uptake of childcare duties by fathers.
  • Improve the promotion of SPL and ensure information is available early. Target mothers with communications first and use relatable individuals in promotions.
  • Consider the use of parenting groups, peer mentoring and workplace champions.
  • Evaluate return-to-work procedures and support for mothers, as well as fathers, after leave, including how breastfeeding is supported in the workplace for returning mothers.
  • Review the Equality Act (2010) and look to include paternity characteristics to ensure fathers are protected from discrimination in the workplace.
  • Any policy change needs to place the child at the centre of the policy.
  • SPL eligibility criteria should be expanded to include self-employed parents.
  • Look at removing the maternal transfer mechanism and offering both parents more leave which is not transferable.
  • A coordinated effort by Government Departments is needed to support the uptake of SPL. For example, a coordinated effort between the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Department of Health and Social Care is needed on the subject of breastfeeding and SPL to ensure that both policies are mutually supportive and not in conflict.
  • Target communications about the benefits of SPL for the child at mothers initially and consider promoting SPL at pre-natal appointments (e.g., leaflets).

The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.

Birmingham Business School delivers world-class research and teaching that provides the insight, ambition and skills to shape advanced and sustainable business strategies. The School’s vision is to promote curiosity and thought leadership for responsible business.

Dr Holly Birkett is a lecturer at Birmingham Business School. She is the Co-director of the Work Inclusivity Research Cluster and an associate member of the Centre for Responsible Business. Holly’s research focuses on work inclusivity and careers.

Dr Sarah Forbes is a lecturer at Birmingham Business School. She is a member of the Responsible Marketing group, Work Inclusivity Research Cluster and an Associate of the Centre for Responsible Business. Sarah’s research focuses on encouraging voluntary behavioural change and survey measurement.

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Interviews are available on request.