• What is the impact of the way we manage childcare and parental leave in the UK?
  • How does parental leave impact gender equality and the gender pay gap?
  • How does it impact mothers? How does it impact fathers?

I was lucky enough to be hosting a conference on International Women’s Day recently. We had many women from all over the world, talking about their experiences around this year’s #BreakTheBias theme. They talked about their personal experiences of marginalisation and assumption. We also celebrated their many successes.

Gender equality is something I have been passionate about since I was young and grew up in a single-parent household, with my mum. I saw the struggles she went through and the discrimination and marginalisation that she faced. It’s something the women I coach also, to this day, are still facing.

One of the topics covered was parental leave. This is a topic that impacts many of us – of all genders. This is not simply about micro-aggressions or subtle bias. This is about institutionalised discrimination, that keeps men and women stuck in traditional roles despite what they might really want.

For most heterosexual couples, women take on the role of primary caregiver and are the ones who take the long period of maternity leave or a break from their careers altogether. Whilst it may seem like a personal choice, the reality is the parental leave policies in place within most organisations make women the primary carers by default.

So many organisations still do not have the right provisions to enable families to have a completely free and equal choice around who takes parental leave in those early months and years. The standard paternity leave for Dads is two weeks and anything longer, they’re forced to use holiday or take unpaid leave, which isn’t always possible. Shared parental leave is available under the current system but with statutory pay at just over £150 per week, it often doesn’t make financial sense for families. Whilst some employers enhance the pay, it is not mandatory.

A point that was made at conference is that the gender pay gap means that women often paid less than their partners, so many families favour the woman taking parental leave as this leaves the family better off.

There is much evidence that maternity leave often contributes to widening the gender pay gap.

There are few organisations that are so progressive that maternity leave doesn’t slow women down, at least for a while. We did hear a great story of a woman being given a promotion only about a month before her baby was born, so she will come back into the organisation at a higher level, and into a job she is truly excited about. I would love to know if you have had a similarly positive experience?

This leaves women no other choice but to press pause on their careers and assume the traditional gender role of main caregiver. With no encouragement or enhancement of shared parental leave pay, it sends a subtle message that organisations value men more than women and are happy for women to take time out of their careers but not men, further fuelling the gender pay gap.

For women, this means time out from their learning and development, missing out on opportunities for career progression and reaching those leadership roles, reducing the amount of money they take home and often limiting their options on their return to work. This leaves a huge skill gap in some industries, which are left dominated by men.

I hear so many stories of women feeling they are at a disadvantage when coming back to work. Put on projects, moved away from leadership roles, and taken away from ‘high pressure’ situations. This might well be what some returning parents would like – but by no means all. The mistake here is to assume we know what someone returning to work would like. We need to take the time to ask each individual what they need to thrive and flourish.

The current system however does not just affect women. It also has a knock-on effect for Dads too. Dad’s miss out on the early years of their children growing up and those important milestones from the first smile, first steps to their first words. Dads don’t get to spend the same quality time with their family at home and often in that period, are required to carry the financial pressure for the family too.

There are many organisations where men are put at a serious career disadvantage if they take more than a couple of weeks of parental leave. Men tell me that they are told it sends the signal that they are not ambitious or passionate about their careers. They miss out on promotions and sponsorship. For so many men this leaves them on the side-lines of parenting. I have spoken to so many dads who want dearly to be an equal parent right from the start, to role model equality in the home and feel fully confident about their parenting skills.

If we don’t enable all genders to play an equal role at home, then we won’t give them the chance to be equal at work too.

What is the impact on the next generation – what role models will they see? What will feel possible for those young people?

This cements the traditional gender roles of the man going to work and the mother staying at home to raise the family, perpetuating this cycle. Organisations need to do more to break these expectations and create these provisions for both parents. The system is complicated and needs an overhaul if we want to truly address gender equality. Both parents should be given equal opportunities, with equal pay so more parents can take make their choices according to their values and passions, not according to financial pressure.

We need to do more to create role models for the next generation.

We need to do more to help all individuals thrive.

Are you a father who has been unable to share the childcare responsibilities with your partner because the current system is not fit for purpose?

Maybe you work for an organisation that has an equal parental leave allowance for all genders?

Perhaps you have lived in another country and have seen a better system there?

Please go get in touch, I would love to hear your stories.