The 2% Club: Parents Who Take Shared Parental Leave

My husband, Richard, with our two kids Oliver and Joey

“It’s great your husband works from home. I bet that makes it a little easier for you when you’re looking after two kids!”

Just one of the well meaning, but slightly frustrating remarks we’ve received from health visitors, midwives and nurses since our son was born at the end of January.

No, my husband doesn’t work from home. He’s on shared parental leave.

He’s taken 9 months ‘off’ (we all know it’s not actually ‘time off’…) to spend more time with our son and is one of the estimated 2–8% of parents who’ve taken shared parental leave since the government launched their ‘Share the joy’ campaign in 2018.

What’s Shared Parental Leave (SPL)?

SPL enables eligible parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay after having a baby. Parents can choose to take time off separately or they can be at home together for up to 6 months. You can find out more about it here.

“You only get 2 weeks, mate!”

My husband shared the good news about our newest addition to the family shortly after our 12 week scan with his boss. The tone of the conversation changed pretty quickly after my husband told him that he planned to take shared parental leave. This isn’t a dig at his boss — I don’t think he even knew what SPL was (research suggests only about half of us do!).

How can we expect our people to know what options they have after having a baby, if senior leaders and Founders aren’t even aware themselves?

There’s a lot that needs to change and I don’t think that responsibility lies wholly with employers but it’s a good place to start if we really mean it when we say we’re inclusive employers that embrace diversity and are striving for gender equality.

A recent poll we ran of mums expecting babies between January and April 2021 suggested up to 92% of them were automatically assumed to be the only parent taking extended leave by their employers.

Come on, we need to do better than this!

Traditional parenting roles are long gone, yet we’re still playing catch up

Long gone are the days of traditional roles in the household. Most families can’t afford the luxury of a ‘stay-at-home’ parent and many simply don’t want one (despite the archaic perception that a parent returning from maternity/ SPL is no longer ‘committed’ to their work).

As a society there’s now an expectation that both parents play an equal role in parenting, yet in practice — and especially when it comes to work — we’ve not really caught up.

Every single medical professional I’ve seen since Joey was born has assumed that I’d be taking maternity leave, with one individual going as far as questioning whether my intention to return to work was in my son’s best interests.

As an employer, you have a wonderful opportunity to begin to change the narrative. To build a culture that embraces working families, where it’s the norm for either (or both) parents to take time off or work flexibility in a way that works for them. No more gender-specific roles, just families doing whatever works for them and their employer supporting that.

Stock image courtesy of Unsplash

Why we need to encourage more parents to consider shared parental leave

Firstly — and most importantly — it’s about doing what’s right. Both parents have a legal right to take time off after their baby is born and we ought to be making sure they have all the information to make a decision that’s right for their family about how much time they each take off.

I’m sure you’ll also be pleased to hear that it also makes sense commercially too. Here’s what’s in it for you:

  • It’ll help you attract the best people from a diverse pool of talent
  • Those people are much more likely to want to continue working for you, so it’ll help you retain that talent that you worked so hard to attract in the first place
  • The flexibility you offer to new parents will be shown in return
  • Happy parents are more likely to be happy people at work too
  • A people-oriented culture has been proven time and time again to drive innovation and performance
  • It helps to reduce the gender pay gap caused by the ‘motherhood penalty’
  • Stress is capital-intensive. Sleep deprived parents aren’t likely to be very productive (someone, please remind me what sleep is…)

Who we can learn from

Stock image courtesy of Unsplash

Scandinavia leads the way. In Sweden, parents can have 480 days leave which includes 390 at around 80% of their salary! Whilst our government has quite a way to catch up with this, (and it’s unrealistic for employers to carry the cost of it all) it would be silly for us not to mention the country flying the flag for working parents.

However, there are lots of (pretty cool) companies doing great things for their people in in the UK too:

  • Netflix — The streaming giant seems to be at the top of the parental-leave podium offering unlimited paid leave, with their policy stating “take care of your baby and yourself.”
  • Etsy — 6 months full pay. Etsy’s former CEO, Chad Dickerson, said “Building a company is a team effort that includes the immense support we get from our families. I’m excited that our new leave policy will strengthen families and, as a result, the company as a whole.” You can check out how they made their decision to offer 6 months full pay here.
  • Lyft — 18 weeks full pay
  • Unleashed, a leading People + Culture consultancy in London, offers 3 months full pay and are aiming to increase paid leave to 12 months

But hey, whilst money is nice (and lets face it, kids are expensive), it’s not all about how much paid leave you offer…

So, what else can you do?

Whilst a Netflix-style package is more than likely out of reach for start-ups (for now!), it’s a great reminder to consider what is affordable and to think beyond the legal obligations, shifting our thinking to ‘how can I make this a better place to work for both parents?’

Family-friendly benefits and policies can reach far beyond the initial period after the baby is born. You could also consider:

  • True flexible, family-friendly working — the kind of policy that shouts ‘Need to pick the kids up from school? Sports day starting at 2pm? Cool by us.’
  • Let parents change their mind when things don’t go to plan — whether that’s preterm labour, a poorly baby, endless sleepless nights (shudder) or anything else that means their original plans aren’t really working
  • Time off for appointments. COVID restrictions aside, lots of expectant mums end up attending ante-natal appointments alone. Let’s encourage both parents to attend.
  • ‘Extra’ time off for babies born prematurely or poorly. Our little Joey was born 6 weeks early and had my husband only taken the ‘traditional’ 2 weeks paternity, he’d have been back at work before our son had even left the hospital.
  • Support after a caesarean. With around 25% of babies being delivered by caesarean section, it can be easy to forget it’s a major operation. Limited parental leave and a lack of knowledge around shared parental leave can leave many women struggling to look after themselves and their new born baby
  • Be inclusive and representative of modern families with your policies, so that they’re accessible to everyone, regardless of gender or how the child was welcomed into the family (surrogacy, IVF, adoption etc)
Oliver and Joey

A final word

I feel I’ve rambled for quite a while, so I’m going to draw breath. But a final word…

Let’s change the narrative. Let’s stop the assumption that the parent who gave birth is the parent who’ll stay at home. It’s time to look inwards and consider the impact our, albeit well-meaning, words have and consider what we can do to make work a better place for all parents.

Written by Ally Jones, an independent Executive Leadership Coach and Facilitator at Alison Jones Coaching.

Helping tech scale-ups create incredible (+ super high performing) places to work through Leadership and Management development + executive coaching.

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