Shared Parental Leave: Worth it for Academics?

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I recently read that the University of Exeter will be offering 6 months paid parental leave in the Times Higher Education from the day that an employee started. This got me reminiscing about my maternity leave. When I got pregnant back in early 2015, I was excited not only because it was our first child but because my husband and I were going to be eligible for shared parental leave as the policy came in during 2015. I thought this was a great policy that finally recognised the rights of the father and the need for the father to spend time with his child. It also meant that my husband could be home and share the parental leave with me. Further, beyond the 10 Keeping in Touch (KIT) days that I was entitled to in keeping in contact with my department, I could also now ease back into my job whilst knowing my husband was taking care of my son (didn’t realise later I will be paranoid about anybody taking care of my son!)

The planning of shared parental leave

We diligently planned and considered different scenarios in the lead up to my son’s birth. There were a lot of spreadsheets flying back and forth with different schedules of how we will divide the shared parental leave. We thought perhaps we could do 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off and perhaps have a cross-over week where we were both home together.

However, we knew that we would not take any shared parental leave until I had my full 6 months maternity leave because of purely economic reasons. My employer was willing to pay me for the first 3 months my full salary, then half my salary for months 3 to 6, and then finally statutory maternity pay (£141/ wk)  for months 6 to 9  (there was no pay for months 9 to 12 and hence, we had already decided that maternity leave was ending at 9 months). If we had taken shared parental leave prior to 6 months, I would have lost the benefit of my salary as we would only be paid statutory parental leave (£141/ week) once we entered into shared parental leave arrangement.

How it worked out

Towards the end of my first 3 months of maternity leave, we started thinking about applying for shared parental leave. But it was starting to look like a logistical nightmare as we had to tell both of our organisations which weeks we would like for shared parental leave and this had to be done 8 weeks prior. As we were still trying to figure out how to get sleep with a baby who insisted on getting up every two hours. Thinking and planning further than 2 hours ahead perhaps was way too complicated to us. Further, the policy indicated that we only could have three separate notices to book leave (which I still don’t understand to this day what that exactly means) and thas we had to think carefully how to use those leave notices, we just procrastinated and left it alone.

As month 5 crept up with us still not posting any notice for shared parental leave to our respective employers (who had slightly different mechanisms for applying for this), my husband (who was also an academic) was getting increasingly jittery. He could not see his employer agreeing for him having two weeks on and two weeks off as he ran one of the degree programmes. And even if they did, they would still expect him to do the work that was expected during those two weeks off, as he was certain that no one will cover the running of his degree programme whilst he was off. He instead saw the shared parental leave as an increased pressure on him to complete work whilst he was away from the office otherwise his employer would not look favourably on his ask for shared parental leave. He instead preferred to take annual leave to spend time with our son and me. In the end, it was logistically and mentally easier and less complicated if I continued with maternity leave until month 9. So, we continued onto month 9, with me on maternity leave completely abandoning the rosiness in the idea of shared parental leave.

Implications for Higher Education

My experience is not unique to me, a recent evaluation of the scheme by the European Observatory of Working Life, noted that between 2-8% of take-up rates. The nature of generous maternity leave* by universities will mean the take-up within Higher Education will be low if employees want to maximise their income. One way this could work is to ensure that during shared parental leave, that both parents could have full/partial pay during the shared parental leave period, but this will be dependent on the maternity leave policies of the institutions/companies that each partner work for, i.e. if one institution has generous maternity leave and the other does not, then the decision to use shared parental leave will come down to an economic decision. Although the idea of shared parental leave sounds good, it is likely that women will take the brunt of childcare duty during the maternity leave period and will continue to have a gender pay gap because of having to pay the childcare penalty.

Endnotes

* This I commend wholeheartedly and hope it continues – as research by Prof. Vera Troeger has shown that generous maternity leave can impact positively on female academics career path!

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