Shared parental leave is used by high earning professionals and has not been the answer to more equal parenting for most families

Blog posts

3 Jul 2023

Rosie Gloster

Rosie Gloster, Principal Research Fellow (former)

The introduction in 2015 of shared parental leave (SPL) allows eligible new parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay. SPL aims to give parents more flexibility over parental leave arrangements, and in enabling couples to share the raising of children more equally, aims to support both parents to retain a strong attachment to the labour market.

However, findings from a survey of approximately 3,000 new parents carried out by BMG Research with the Institute for Employment Studies, and commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) confirm that take-up of SPL has been low: just 1 per cent of all mothers took SPL, and 4 per cent of fathers. New parents taking SPL have tended to be high-earning professionals. SPL parents are more likely than other new parents to hold higher-level qualifications: nine in ten parents that took SPL had qualifications at degree level or above (88 per cent, compared with 28 per cent and 32 per cent of mothers and fathers in general, respectively) and more than half were qualified to postgraduate level (54 per cent, compared with 13 per cent of all mothers and 16 per cent of all fathers). Parents taking SPL were also more likely to be on high incomes, earning an average of just under £43,500 before birth, compared with just under £17,200 per annum for all mothers and just under £28,900 for all fathers in the survey.

Yet, despite these differences the vast majority of both mothers and fathers surveyed (84 per cent and 86 per cent) agreed that men should take as much responsibility as women for the home and children. So why has SPL not been taken-up?

  • There is a lack of awareness. While any new policy takes time to be understood, a third (33 per cent) of all mothers from the sample who did not take SPL had not heard of it, and the proportion was closer to half (45 per cent) among all fathers that did not take SPL. A further 15 per cent of mothers had heard of SPL but did not know what it was, and around one in ten (11 per cent) fathers.
  • SPL is not an option for some new parents because of their relationship status. For example, one in four new mothers are single parents (25 per cent). Even in coupled households, the take-up of SPL was significantly higher among parents who are married/ living in a civil partnership than those who were co-habiting. This suggests that security in the parental relationship is also an important determining factor, and the process required to negotiate and ‘share the leave’ might therefore not be easy to navigate in all types of families.
  • Negative financial impact: Among respondents who considered, but did not take SPL, around a third of mothers (31 per cent) and fathers (34 per cent) said that it would have a negative financial impact for the family.
  • Do not want to ‘share’ the leave: Almost the same proportion (30 per cent) of mothers and around one in five (17 per cent) fathers said they did not want to share or take this leave. Nearly one in five (18 per cent) fathers and one in eight (13 per cent) mothers said their partner did not want to share or take this leave.

My companion blog reflects on the findings that two in five new fathers did not take parental leave of any type, with key reasons being lack of affordability and lack of employment security. The situation of new fathers taking no parental leave, contrasts with the early adopters of SPL. Those who have taken SPL have been parents who are more likely to have the financial means to adopt a household earning model that reflects their views and can afford to take SPL even when it does not maximise their household earnings, and they are confident in enacting their rights. For example, seven in ten (70 per cent) mothers were aware that by law employers must give pregnant employees time off for antenatal care and pay their normal rate for this time off compared with just over half (52 per cent) of fathers and nearly nine in ten (86 per cent) SPL parents.  Between these two extremes, is a large group of coupled parents, some married and some co-habiting, as well as the one in four new mothers who are lone parents. Their decisions about whether to take parental leave, and what format are equally determined by the financial and other constraints they face and how to strike the best balance they can within these.

SPL has not been the answer to more equal parenting for most families. So what could be? Sharing leave has proved difficult. Countries such as Sweden and Slovenia have introduced a quota for each parent, with a “use it or lose it” proviso, and this has increased take-up. However, unless we address the key issues of affordability, take-up of parental leave whatever the policy will continue to be determined by income and financial security, and it will remain an unaffordable luxury for many new parents.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.