Shared parental leave is five years old: have we made the most of it?
A view from Rob Sellers

Shared parental leave is five years old: have we made the most of it?

As we move towards a 'new normal', the coming months will provide an opportunity to accelerate changes for greater equality, such as taking up shared parental leave.

Some of the narratives that have driven the news agenda in recent years are taking a back seat as everyone focuses on the short-term impact of Covid-19 – and rightly so. But as we move towards a "new normal", the coming months will provide an important opportunity to accelerate some of the wider changes we want to see – one of which must surely be greater and more fundamental equality, in all senses. An example is shared parental leave, which became law five years ago this week. 

What feels like a lifetime ago, the law was one of the chips played by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition government. Nick Clegg, then deputy prime minister, suggested it was an important way to break down expectations and barriers that stop both parents from contributing in equal ways to family life during a child’s first year. 

In simple terms, the policy allowed up to 50 weeks of parental leave to be shared between two parents (37 of which would be covered by statutory pay). Clegg’s language at the time reflected the assumed social norms – namely, that women should not feel the need to sacrifice careers to become mothers and men should be able to feel they can connect with their children during their early years.

As a man and a dad, I believe ensuring that the option exists for new fathers to take a meaningful amount of time to spend with their baby is incredibly important. My kids arrived a few years before shared parental leave and it would have been amazing to spend more time with them. But, if I am honest, I was not at my most effective during the first few months of parenthood – as my mates and colleagues at the time will surely agree.

What with lack of sleep and home and social life turned upside down, it was really hard to focus on the working day. I continuously felt I was letting the side down. "Crap Dad Syndrome" is how I came to refer to my state at this time – an affliction that many of us get when we’re expected to go back to work a few days after the baby arrives and crack on like nothing’s changed.

By the time baby number two turned up a few years later, I was acclimatised. We knew what to expect, nothing was a surprise, we were used to the reduced shut-eye and we had all the gear. Turning up to an important meeting wearing different shoes – the result of getting dressed in the dark to avoid waking the leviathan – was the worst thing that happened.

Shared parental leave gives us an important tool to help manage individuals. With personal experience like mine – and good, open dialogue with talent – we should always encourage new parents to be aware of the options they have to help them enjoy and flourish in their baby’s first year. But, without disrespect, this is a small problem.

For the big opportunity in our industry remains equality – from a gender perspective, specifically. We know that to have children clearly affects the trajectory of women’s careers – and, ultimately, their earning potential – and this is a major issue. Yet we don’t create an environment to which women can return from periods of extended leave feeling that they can carry on the same path without extra personal sacrifice. 

The sum of this is that we have a system that, by default, enables one gender at the cost of another, and which is evidential in a persistent gender pay gap. Whatever efforts and mechanics we put in place, industry-wide macro numbers prove that much is left to do.

In short, as an industry, we simply can’t afford to underutilise – or, at worse, lose completely – 50% of our amazing talent.

So, as we look back across the five years since the introduction of shared parental leave, has it had the impact on that career equality that Clegg hoped it would? Probably not. That may not be the fault of the policy, however. Rather, it could have more to do with the effectiveness of agencies and institutions’ efforts to encourage the behaviour it was designed to stimulate. 

Given how surprisingly easy we are finding it to stay connected to our teams and our clients in the weirdness of Covid-19, maybe this experience will give us all confidence that everyone can flourish by sharing time away from the office equally – when the motive is family love, not fear – once the pandemic crisis has passed. 

Rob Sellers is chief growth officer at Grey London
Picture: Getty Images