Government unit offers hope for shared parental leave

Government-backed Behavioural Insights Team identifies ways to increase uptake in new parents sharing leave.


While the benefits of fathers spending more time with their children are clear, take-up of shared parental leave remains depressingly low. In 2018/19 just 10,700 (3.7%) of an estimated 285,000 eligible fathers took up the entitlement.

Campaigners are clear on the solution – scrap the current system of shared parental leave and replace it with a fit-for-purpose system featuring “use it or lose it” entitlements alongside higher levels of statutory pay. It works in Scandinavia where uptake in some countries is as high as 90%, but the government continues to drag its heels on common-sense reform of the system.

Step forward the fabled “nudge” unit – the government-backed Behavioural Insights Team – which believes it has found a way to boost uptake without legislative intervention. By looking at the presence of “pluralistic ignorance” in the workplace, a situation in which a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but go along with it because they assume, incorrectly, that most others accept it, they think they can change attitudes from within.

What the report says

The findings of the report, published last week, are interesting. Simply by telling men that their peers support parental leave and flexible working increases their intention to take it. It’s akin to me telling my children they should eat vegetables because Duggee would approve. But, unlike my efforts, their method actually achieves results.

The unit ran baseline surveys at banking group Santander UK and a second unnamed bank asked male participants whether they supported male colleagues who took longer parental leave and worked flexibly, in order to balance work and non-work responsibilities. Men at Santander thought that roughly 65% of their peers would encourage male colleagues to work flexibly, while in reality 99% would do so. At the second bank, twice as many men supported male colleagues to take at least four months of leave as men assumed.

Increase in dads wanting shared leave

Once the feedback was disseminated there was a 62% increase in the proportion of men intending to take five to eight weeks of leave at Santander. At the second bank, there was a 50% increase in the same category. The nudge unit provided feedback via a simple survey, but reckons employers could share feedback via email, posters, or intranet systems. It describes the method as a low-cost intervention for employers who would like to increase male uptake of flexible working and parental leave, in turn reducing the gender pay gap and create more equal sharing of work and care responsibilities between women and men.

Whether UK firms will actually walk the walk on promoting shared parental leave remains to be seen, but, in the absence of proposals to improve the existing system, there is arguably a role for central government here too. If it is committed to gender equality at home and in the workplace, as opposed to simply paying lip service to it, then raising public awareness of entitlements and highlighting fast-changing social attitudes towards fathers spending more time with their children, the launch of some form of co-ordinated national campaign is surely not too much to ask. While it is unlikely to increase the take-up of shared parental leave to desirable levels, at least it would be a positive step forward and show some level of commitment to gender equality.

Read more:

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Shared Parental Leave needs to be ‘urgently overhauled’

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