Parental leave: A corporate inconvenience?

by | Oct 24, 2018

Why we need to alter our approach to parental leave

Parental leave is a vital part of improving the work-life balance. As we try to improve the gender gap in the workplace, it is essential that we also try to improve equality at home.

I first wrote about children being a corporate inconvenience in 2012. This was in response to a proposal to extend the school day in the U.K. to 8.00 p.m. Six years later, much to my disappointment, the conversation is still ongoing and seemingly unresolved. Both men and women who take or wish to assume responsibility for parenting and childcare still report problems.

12 hour day care

Now, it could be that outsourcing child care, for what could be 12 hours a day, for many is a viable, sustainable solution in societies and economies that have declining populations, aging work forces and skill shortages. I await the research with eager anticipation. But for the future of global economies, governments and businesses need to examine possibilities to create effective and agile workforces. They need to allow children to be raised in healthy environments, physically and emotionally.

Historically, this has been a role assigned to women. Such a high percentage of educated and qualified personnel are now women. It seems crazy to sit back and allow their skills to be under utilised when they leave the workforce or choose to work below their capabilities, all so they can assume family responsibilities.

But today times are changing. What happens when men and women alike want (or need) to assume both professional and child-care roles? To me it seems nothing short of a confused mess.

Parental leave

Changing times

In 1977 only 50% of married men were part of dual-career households, which has increased today to 75%. In many ways this makes it trickier to achieve work life balance/integration, whatever you want to call it. Women in the 21st century are being constantly urged to re-negotiate the responsibility for household tasks within their own relationships. This is a key benchmark in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report. It partly accounts for the reasons that some countries receive low scores, despite progressive employment conditions for women. Women still find they are doing most of the unpaid work at home.

But for balance at home to become a reality, men have to then negotiate their own roles with their employers. An increasing number of men are now citing work/life balance as a major factor in career choice. It is an element which is strongly endorsed by Gen Y starting out on their careers. Children have two parents, even if they don’t live together.

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Parental leave for both parents

Josh Levs global advocate for parenting leave for men says "These stereotypes have real-life consequences. Leaders in business and government continue to think of family concerns as a women's issue. So they build laws, policies, and cultures that push women to be caregivers and men not to be. Everything that holds back women at work also holds back men at home. Dads are suffering from work-life conflict at the same rate, or an even higher rate, than moms. Men are also dealing with just as much stress. They have much higher suicide rates and are much less likely to get help because doing so is seen as not being 'manly.'"

In a Deloitte survey in 2016, less than 50% of participants felt their organisations helped men to feel comfortable taking parenting leave. More than one-third of men and women surveyed think that taking parental leave would put their job in jeopardy

The daddy factor

Fatherhood has been perceived by potential employers as a guarantee of corporate drive and career commitment. But only to a point. On a longer term basis, a wish for workplace flexibility for family reasons is considered to be the “mummy track” to career suicide. Men are frequently advised not to pursue those options. they even become “supernumerary” following such requests. Single-parent fathers with custody obligations and sole responsibility for their children at specific times, are also on the increase. This adds to the numbers for whom flexibility is a need, not a desire.

Skewed odds

So the odds of achieving parity in both the home for men and the workplace for women are equally skewed. This is not just a case of stereotypical macho slothfulness and a desire to watch the football with a beer. Nor is it just their partners being unwilling to relinquish domestic supremacy, although that can play a part too.

This is about outdated business models. We need to focus on corporate and wider cultures to mitigate the damage.

Where it works

Sweden became the first country to replace maternity leave with parental leave. A study published by the Swedish Institute of Labor Market Policy Evaluation in March 2010 evaluated the impact. It showed that a mother’s future earnings increases on average 7% for every month of leave the father takes, with penalties and loss of benefits imposed for men who don’t take this leave.

Parents may use their 390 days of paid leave however they want up to the child’s eighth birthday — monthly, weekly, daily and even hourly. There has apparently been a commensurate reduction in the divorce rate. The use it or lose it approach seems to be working. Lars Arrhenius, who wrote the Swedish report, said the “take it or leave it” days were the most influential ones to target, because parents won’t want to miss out on the subsidised days.

I can’t help but wonder how the “think tanks”, with their notable lack of women, are going to figure this one out. As Sheryl Sandberg has already noted:

"Give us a world where half our homes are run by men, and half our institutions are run by women. I'm pretty sure that would be a better world.”

The reality is when workplace cultures support parenthood - all employees benefit.

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Updated from a post on www.dorothydalton.com in 2012

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.
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