Paternity leave - where are we now?

Years of tireless campaigning by gender equality groups have finally paid off – men now have almost the same parental leave rights as women, thanks to new legislation designed to help couples to share caring responsibilities for their children.

The new rules will mean that parents will have the legal right to share time off work during their baby’s first year, with the father collecting statutory maternity pay that would have otherwise been owed to the mother. Any parents of babies due or born after the 3rd of April will qualify under the new system.

But, with the gender pay gap still a pressing issue and the majority of men feeling reluctant to take up paternity leave, does the new legislation go far enough in encouraging men to share long-term leave or is there still a way to go?

While many detractors have argued that few men will opt for the new paternity leave, they have also neglected to mention that a significant reason that men still tend to be paid more than women is that fathers rarely take long periods out of the rat race.

The hope, in offering men and women more equal parental leave, is that this factor will be eliminated. If both men and women begin to take the same amount of time out then this will be a step in the right direction: towards closing the gender pay gap.

However, there is a flaw in the legislation. While women are legally entitled to take maternity leave, employers can refuse to grant paternity leave to fathers if they have “valid reasons” for turning down the request.

Fathers also won’t be able to step in from day one. They have to wait until their baby reaches four months. If the mother then chooses to return to work, the father can collect the statutory maternity pay to which she would have been entitled.

While this is a big step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go before shared absences begin to have an impact on the gender pay gap. More should be done to encourage fathers to take up their new paternity rights and reassure them that their careers will progress regardless and it ought to be mandatory for employers to provide men with the same leave as women.

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