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Working Families & Shared Parental Leave

- Danielle Reece-Greenhalgh is a Senior Associate at Corker Binning

Recent research by the Trades Union Congress, published in the Independent[1] has confirmed what many of our members know all too well – that the pandemic has had a disproportionately adverse effect on working mothers. The combination of home working and lack of external childcare resources has led to a much higher number of women than men being furloughed from work or having to take on reduced hours.

According to the survey, “41 per cent of working mothers with children under 10 are struggling to find childcare that will allow them to work. Almost half (45 per cent) of those surveyed said they cannot get help from friends or family for childcare.” Whilst 43% of working mothers described having to work from home whilst simultaneously caring for children, only 29% of working fathers faced the same dilemma.

Before the lockdown, WICL were already engaged in exploring the disparity between working mothers and fathers, and specifically in respect of the uptake of Shared Parental Leave (“SPL”). We sought to examine whether the availability of SPL since 2015 had led to a re-balancing of traditional childcare roles as envisaged by those who fought for its introduction.

We launched our survey in May 2020. It did not seek any views on the impact of furlough or the pandemic, and focused solely on the SPL system. Respondents included those with children (who were invited to share their experiences of SPL), and those without (who may wish to take SPL in the future.) 81.2% of those without children stated that they would wish to take SPL in the future once they started a family.

The results demonstrated that the majority of respondents (64.29%) did not take SPL in any form, despite it being available to them, their partner or both. 55.5% put their decision down to financial unviability, and 33% stated that it would have adversely affected their partner’s employment progression. Where SPL was taken, all respondent mothers took more time off work than their partners. All respondents described financial considerations as factoring into their decisions regarding SPL, and only 20% of respondents felt that their and their partners’ employers were supportive of SPL.

Of the respondents who did take SPL (in any form), the majority felt that it was a positive experience, enabling partners to spend more time with their child and benefitting equality in the workplace.

At WICL, we are committed to ensuring that women working in criminal law have every opportunity to progress their careers at the same rate as their male counterparts. Employers within the legal profession should be at the forefront of this. Rather than SPL being a novel or unusual concept which parents (particularly fathers) need to directly request, we would encourage employers to actively encourage its uptake as standard amongst employees, including by agreeing to allow working fathers to take SPL in segments rather than en bloc (which currently is at the discretion of the employer).

The results of our survey, and of the recent TUC investigations, show that women continue to bear the brunt of childcare responsibility. Our survey demonstrates that this is not always by choice, and that many women would welcome the opportunity to balance childcare and work equally with their partners. At WICL, we will continue to advocate for systems which support the equal distribution of childcare without any negative impact upon the careers of working women.

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