Employment, Pensions & Immigration
The theme of International Women’s Day 2022 on March 8 is #BreakTheBias, with research showing that maternal bias is the strongest type of gender bias and involves an assumption that women become less committed to their work if they decide to have children. Subsequently, women are overlooked for promotion opportunities and this contributes to the gender pay gap in the UK, which increased to 15.4 per cent in 2021. The ‘motherhood penalty’ can also result in women with children receiving 45 per cent lower earnings in the long-term compared to women without.
The UK government has proposed making flexible working the default and more employers than ever are looking at hybrid working options. Whilst this is likely to help employees juggle their work with caring responsibilities, research has also suggested that people working from home may be overlooked for promotion which could in fact worsen the motherhood penalty. It is therefore especially important that employers work to address biases in relation to working mothers.
Challenging the assumption that mothers, rather than fathers, should fit their work around caregiving is a good way to start. Part of this involves making sure that expectant parents are aware of the leave options available to them. Shared Parental Leave was introduced in the UK in 2015 to try and minimise the effects of the motherhood penalty and move away from the assumption that the mother is always the primary carer. It allows two eligible parents to share 50 weeks of Shared Parental Leave and 37 weeks’ Shared Parental Pay. For birth parents, this requires the mother to ‘curtail’ her maternity leave first.
It has been suggested that increasing the uptake of Shared Parental Leave could help to reduce the gender pay gap in the UK, but uptake remains woefully low. Between 2020 and 2021 less than 2 per cent of eligible couples applied for the leave, a drop of 17 per cent from the previous year. This may be partly because more fathers were working from home and therefore able to see their new-borns without taking parental leave. Paternity leave uptake was also at its lowest in 10 years for this period and the burden of childcare significantly increased for women in comparison to men during the pandemic. Low uptake rates of Shared Parental Leave are often put down to the low statutory pay rate, paired with pay differences between men and women, and the complexity of the regulations, as well as the requirement for the mother to ‘give up’ her maternity leave.
The UK Government carried out consultation on parental leave and pay reforms which concluded in November 2019, but the results have yet to be published, no doubt delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, there are steps employers can be taking in the meantime to make Shared Parental Leave a more viable option
Although the 2019 UK Court of Appeal case of Ali v Capita Customer Management Ltd (Rev 2)  Ltd found that not enhancing Shared Parental Pay in the same way as Maternity Pay did not amount to sex discrimination, this does not mean employers should not do so. Enhancing pay for family leave which men can take is one of the more obvious ways in which employers can encourage sharing childcare.
Education and communication are also key. HR professionals should remind themselves of how the regulations work in practice. Shared Parental Leave should be well publicised, beyond a policy in a handbook, and all parents seeking to take parental leave should be advised of their options. Making it easier for mothers to return to work, especially when they are breastfeeding, is also the responsibility of employers.
Most importantly, however, employers should change the way they view family leave policies by making them an integral part of their diversity and inclusion agendas.
Employers often consider enhancing family leave and pay as a way to attract talent or retain staff, in the same way they would annual leave entitlements, bonus schemes or other benefits. However, to address bias and in order to improve the gender pay gap, employers need to look beyond this, and also consider the impact offering family leave and pay above the statutory minimum could have on gender equality in their workplaces. Although there are no guarantees it will increase uptake, challenging cultural expectations and showing support from the top could mean more women are able to return to work earlier and share the burden of childcare if they want to.