Why new fathers are too scared to take paternity leave

by Nic Hammarling, Head of Diversity, Pearn Kandola

A troubling statistic from 2018 suggested that as few as one-in-50 men were taking advantage of a Government scheme designed to make it easier for new fathers to take paternity leave. The scheme allows parents to share 50 weeks of leave, 37 of which are with pay, which at first sounds like a fantastic initiative. However, of the 285,000 couples eligible, only 2% were actually taking it up.

Troubling as this statistic is, it isn’t particularly surprising. The fact that men appear to be reluctant to take paternity leave is a significant, yet massively unrecognised issue.

Societal pressures

A common assumption, driven by societal norms and stereotypes, is that men aren’t interested in taking time off work following the birth of a child. There is a widespread belief that women are biologically programmed to want to take time off to be with a child, that they are somehow automatically better at playing dressing up and that they are less likely than men to want to bang their head against a wall when their three-year-old wants to rerun the same dialogue with their superhero figures for the twentieth time. The truth of the matter is that these assumptions are simply incorrect.

Often, men want the opportunity to take a more active role in caring for their children, but many are intimidated by the idea of asking their employer for time off work. In a workplace environment, to be nurturing and caring isn’t often expected of men, and as such, many are wary of the backlash they may receive for asking for time away in order to be with their children.

Flexible working

Another source of pressure is the extent to which flexible working policies are being pushed towards women. It’s fantastic that such progress has been made in recent years for women to take maternity leave without disrupting their careers. However, this progress, which subtly reinforces the idea that taking care of a child is a mother’s role, is to the detriment of men who wish to spend time with their children.

Indeed, there is such a focus in organisations on encouraging women to take maternity leave that it’s actually quite common for men to be unsure of whether they are even entitled to paternity leave, let alone shared leave.

The bottom line is that drastic change must take place if we are to address the problems with paternity leave; and the responsibility for ushering that change doesn’t lie solely with one party.

Political policy

The UK government should consider a parental leave policy which looks at equal entitlement for both parents, similar to that of Sweden, for example. It’s a Swedish legal requirement that each parent is entitled to three months of parental leave, with 80% of their salaries paid. However, the caveat is that this time is non-transferable. In other words, you use it or you lose it. They are also looking at introducing an additional three months of leave which could be shared or transferred.

The crucial focus of this policy is that it creates an expectation that men and women will be equally involved in their child’s care and upbringing. The policy put in place by our own government in 2018 is failing – at least in part – because it’s optional and because organisations are scared of what will happen if they encourage their male employees to take this option. The (often unspoken) pressure to not take parental leave is at such a level that men will commonly turn it down or take only a portion of what they are entitled to, even though they would prefer to seize it with both hands.

This policy, whilst a step in the right direction, is nothing more than that. Whilst change cannot occur overnight – if compulsory paternity leave was announced without warning, such a rapid chance of pace would be received with uproar by the business community – the government must put more effort into providing support for men who wish to take leave, in the same way that has been done for women.

Society needs to alter its mindset as well

In addition, we must see a myriad of changes taking place across society as a whole. We must see the myth that women are automatically better than men at looking after children debunked, organisations must make sure that flexible working policies are accessible and that new fathers are aware of the rights they are entitled to, and experts in diversity and inclusion must make sure that they aren’t providing consultation which benefits women to the detriment of men.

Finally, there is an urgent need for more men to act as role models to their colleagues. Men must show that it is not only acceptable to take time off work in order to be fathers, but also be open about the benefits that they can currently feel shy about discussing with others.

To truly change, we must all take stock of the insecurities that are holding men back from being present, caring fathers. The more we think of childcare as a woman’s responsibility, the more entrenched we become and the harder it will be for men to grasp the opportunities that they are so desperately looking for.

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