Business leaders need to role model flexible working to encourage new fathers to take time off work, says Emma Banister

I recently chaired a round table discussion which brought together diversity and recruitment experts from various organisations to debate issues relating to family support.

The debate, hosted by WorkingMums, particularly focused on support for working fathers and highlighted the deeply entrenched cultural barriers that men still face when it comes to working more flexibly and taking time off to support their young families.

For instance, the event heard that many dads were still afraid to even talk to their manager about flexible working, while when men did work flexibly for childcare reasons it was often done ‘under the radar’.

Although some organisations did report pockets of progress as a result of senior leadership buy-in, in some areas attitudes were still fairly old-fashioned, unspoken and difficult to shift.

For instance a big issue remains the fear of the impact of taking Shared Parental Leave (SPL) on a man’s career. There is ‘an element of risk’ involved in being one of the first to take SPL, and cultural change is required to give men the freedom to talk more about their experiences openly and not worry about the impact on their career.

Indeed, the event heard that men needed more role models and senior leaders could have an impact on SPL take-up by ‘normalising’ talking about being a dad at work, and role modelling flexible working even if they could not themselves take SPL because their children were older.

Cause for optimism

However there was cause for optimism at the event with many companies now going to extensive lengths to try and break down these cultural barriers and ensure fathers (as well as mothers) were well supported at work.

For instance Lloyds spoke about their ‘agile hiring’ programme whereby managers who advertise vacancies are challenged if no flexibility is included and have to give a good business rationale to explain why. In this way there is more buy-in for agile working from managers, and potential employees know that they don’t have to have that awkward conversation about flexible working at interview.

The bank also reported huge appetite for dads to be involved in workplace programmes and for parenting information. Lloyds’ network Family Matters which normally gets 300-400 people listening in to lunchtime sessions on parenting issues, gets double that number on issues relating to dads.

I was genuinely surprised at the WorkingMums event at how well developed some of these companies' approaches to equality and diversity were. What struck me was that many large organisations are clearly making great efforts in this whole arena, and that many employers have a lot of catching up to do.

Shared Parental Leave

My own research has been looking at the take-up of Shared Parental Leave (SPL) and at how we can increase awareness of the policy which allows employed parents to divide up to 50 weeks of leave between them in their child’s first year.

The debate heard that two years since the policy was introduced employers were taking widely different approaches to SPL. For instance Vodafone said it had an international SPL policy under which dads get the same pay as mums and can have a gradual return to work on full pay. But even despite this take-up of SPL was still low.

Latest figures on SPL take-up nationwide show just how poor the take-up of SPL has been. Figures from HMRC, which were released under a freedom of information request submitted by People Management, revealed that just 7,100 men received SPL in the 2016/17 tax year.

To help increase awareness of SPL I have been working with Ben Kerrane from Lancaster University Management School, and with both Working Families and the Fatherhood Institute, to create a video case book showing the first-hand experiences of parents who have used the scheme.

Key points from the debate:

  • Employers need to communicate SPL policy better and enhance it where possible to show they value dads being more involved in childcare
  • Drop-in sessions can work because the legislation is complex and everyone’s situation is different
  • There is a huge demand for parenting support from dads
  • Giving more support to dads improves their engagement and can counter feelings of resentment at the focus on female career progression
  • Senior leaders can have an impact by making it ok to talk about being a dad at work and by being a role model, even if they cannot take SPL themselves 

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Dr Emma Banister is Senior Lecturer in Consumer Research at Alliance MBS