Changing role for fathers… or not?

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Ed Miliband has announced his intention to double the length of paternity leave to four weeks if Labour wins this year’s General Election.

Labour would also raise the level of statutory paternity pay to £260 per week - a huge increase from the current rate of £138.18 per week (£139.58 per week from 5 April 2015).

This policy acknowledges the belief that more needs to be done to encourage fathers to take time off to spend with their newborn children. Evidence shows that only 55% of men currently take their full two-week entitlement to ordinary paternity leave, whilst a 2013 study showed that less than 1% of eligible fathers take additional paternity leave of up to 26 weeks.

The Liberal Democrats have also pledged to extend paternity leave to six weeks. Political attitudes towards the role of working fathers in childcare are changing, but is this thinking shared by employers or even employees?

The announcement comes as businesses prepare for the introduction of shared parental leave, in relation to children expected to be born or adopted on or after 5 April 2015. According to research 70% of personnel directors believe employees have little or no interest in shared parental leave, whereas the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills found that 75% of current working fathers would have considered it had it been available to them.

Are employers really that out of step with working fathers?

The TUC have reported that only three in five working fathers with children under one would actually be eligible for shared parental leave by virtue of the mother’s earnings requirement. Other research suggests only a third of male employees under 34 actively intend to take shared parental leave – a figure that drops to roughly one in five in the male workforce as a whole. However, the lower pay and concerns about career progression could be one of the main reasons men choose not to.

The dangers of an outdated approach towards the role of working fathers in childcare were highlighted in the case of Pietzka v PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Mr Pietzka made flexible working and part-time working requests in order to spend more time with his two-year old daughter, which were rejected. The employee was advised by a senior manager that pursuing these requests would harm his career prospects, and his promotion prospects were subsequently blocked. After an unsuccessful grievance process Mr Pietzka resigned and brought a claim for sex discrimination.

The Employment Tribunal decided in his favour, finding that the senior manager had formed the view that flexible working on family grounds was suitable for female employees, but not male employees. Female employees at the firm had encountered far less resistance when making similar flexible working requests. This ruling came despite the employer winning a raft of awards for its culture of diversity, equality and inclusivity.

The ACAS good practice guide highlights that similar issues could arise with shared parental leave. It gives the example of a male employee who is mocked and whose request for shared parental leave is rejected for no obvious reason. In this case, the employer may be guilty of sex discrimination if the request is treated differently to those made by female colleagues. It may also be possible for the employee to resign and claim constructive dismissal if his request is not considered fairly, or bring a claim that he has been subjected to a detriment for relying on his right to request shared parental leave. Employers should ensure that male employees’ career prospects and working conditions do not worsen as a result of requesting or taking shared parental leave.

The age when women can be expected to stay at home whilst the father provides for his family are clearly long gone, and employers who fail to recognise the role of modern fathers in childcare run the risk of being successfully challenged in the Employment Tribunal.

Article originally published in People Management.