Why is take-up of shared parental leave so low? Learning from parents' return to work decisions

Blog posts

14 Jun 2018

Rosie Gloster

Rosie Gloster, Senior Research Fellow

Employment rights and benefits for parents have seen significant changes in the fifty years that we have been researching employment policy and practice here at IES. Whilst the 1975 Employment Protection Act introduced the right to return to work up to 29 weeks after childbirth for women and legislated for maternity benefits for eighteen weeks, it was not until 2003, nearly thirty years later, that paid paternity leave was introduced. The employment rate of women with young children has increased steadily since then, impacted by maternity rights, but also changes to taxation and childcare policies.

The pace of change and recognition of the rights of both parents on a more equal footing is increasing, characterised by the introduction in 2015 of shared parental leave (SPL) as one of the government’s flagship policies. SPL allows both parents (if eligible) to share up to fifty weeks of leave. SPL aims to give parents more flexibility over childcare arrangements and more choice for women wishing to return to work after childbirth. In enabling couples to share the raising of children more equally, it aims to support both parents to retain a strong attachment to the labour market. This in turn should, as IES research on behalf of Acas has suggested, help to reduce the gender pay gap, of which women taking career breaks to care for children is often cited as a key cause. However, early data about SPL suggests that take-up has been low: approximately 285,000 couples every year qualify for SPL, but take-up is around two per cent.

So, why are parents not yet using shared parental leave?

Except for a small-scale study which looked at shared parental decision-making, there has been little research about why take-up of SPL has been so low. However, we do know that, for new parents, whether or not to use SPL is one of the first decisions they will make about how to balance work and childcare responsibilities between them. A recent IES report for the Government Equalities Office (GEO) summarised research relating to parents’ return to work decisions, and many of the findings suggest what could lie behind the low take-up of SPL to date:

  • Parents make short-term decisions, based on what seems best for now; driven by the emotion of becoming a parent, and with relatively little consideration of the longer-term impact of career breaks on their careers and lifetime earnings.

  • People have varying self-identities, either primarily as a worker, primarily as a mother/father, or as both.

  • Social and cultural workplace norms, including employer attitudes (or perceptions of their attitudes) and working practices, where it remains largely women working flexibly or part-time. Many men are reluctant to ask for flexible working, in part because of the potential impact on their career.

  • Women do not want to leave ‘good work’, of high quality and with meaning for them:  higher-skilled, higher-educated women are more likely to return to work and to do so more quickly. Return to work decisions are affected by how women perceive their employer and workplace.

  • Finances and the affordability of choices, especially in the short-term. Low maternal income, pre-pregnancy, is likely to push women into becoming the primary care-giver given the costs and relative unaffordability of childcare. Unlike maternity leave, most employers do not yet enhance SPL, meaning that many couples are likely to be financially worse off if they choose to take SPL.

What drives decision-making around parental responsibilities?

Generally the evidence suggested that parents did not seek information to inform their return to work decisions, and this is supported by the recent behavioural insights research which showed that return to work decisions tend to be taken implicitly, often without much discussion and agreement between couples. Furthermore, several of the things that influence return to work decisions are established much earlier, ie pre-pregnancy.

If we assume that people are going to continue to make decisions in the same way, focusing on the here and now, influenced particularly by affordability, then perhaps we should work with that and consider how those odds, and how these odds are weighed up in decision-making, might be changed.

Five tips to encourage take-up of SPL

  • Develop ‘good work’ that has meaning for employees. The Taylor Review has encouraged much conversation about this, but more could be done to make work meaningful for more people.

  • Continue to counter gendered career choices throughout the education system, encouraging more women into work in better-paid jobs and jobs which motivate them.

  • Consider whether free-childcare policies could be extended to parents with younger children.

  • Employers also have a part to play. First, they could provide information about SPL and promote it, to both male and female employees, and consider if they could enhance the statutory minimum for SPL – more generous and equal schemes operate in other countries and this has encouraged take-up.

  • More generally, employers should consider how to incorporate flexibility into job design and how flexible working for parents might encourage shared parenting beyond the first year.

With the support of policymakers and employers in these above areas, we may gradually see more and more colleagues or someone we know of taking up SPL, or see more fathers working flexibly. With this, SPL and more evenly shared work and caring responsibilities are likely to become business as usual, much as maternity and paternity leave have become over the last fifty years.

Our evidence review into parents’ decision-making shows what a balancing act being a working parent is, so above all, it is important that parents can make informed choices, and are able to decide the option and balance that best fits their family and circumstances.


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