Children and families bill: What does it mean for employers?

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Last month the Children and Families Bill had a second reading in the House of Commons. It recognised the vital role that both parents play in their children’s upbringing, from birth throughout their childhood.

Under the new Bill, maternity leave available from two weeks to 12 months following birth, can be used by the father instead of the mother; shared between them in blocks or taken together. This may be particularly attractive where the mother is the main or equal breadwinner in the family.

Since April 2012 fathers have been able to share maternity leave from five months after the birth but there has been a noticeably low take-up of this right. Will allowing fathers to share the leave earlier make any real difference?

It is likely to take many years before extended paternity leave becomes the norm. Deep- rooted stereotypes about traditional gender roles will not change overnight and fathers may be concerned about being penalised financially in terms of pay and career progression for taking advantage of family-friendly employment rights.

They will have seen the effects of parenthood on the careers of some of their female colleagues. But if more fathers take the opportunities that are already in place and which will be extended by the new Bill, the issues frequently faced by working mothers may well become parental, rather than maternal only issues, in the future.

It is only when fathers feel able to take advantage of these increased rights that we will have true equality in the workplace. We will only have a level playing field at interview stage when employers view men and women in the same way and genuinely believe that there is an equal chance of men taking extended periods of parental leave to care for their children, as there is of women taking additional maternity leave.

Many fathers want to be more hands-on and spend more time with their children. In families where both parents are professionals and earn a similar level of income, or where the female is the main breadwinner (and the number of such families is growing rapidly), it is much easier to maintain a successful relationship when both parents share the juggling act, rather than just the mother doing so alone.

With increasing numbers of women in the workplace, many fathers already share the parenting – for instance, doing school drop-offs, attending parents’ evenings, and juggling jobs with child sickness.

In order for fathers, whether cohabiting, married, separated or divorced, to be able to play an active role in their child’s daily lives, this is likely to require an approach to their employer for flexible working. Employers must be careful not to discriminate against fathers when considering flexible working requests based on traditional gender stereotypes, particularly as the Government wants to encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy.

The Bill should help to alter society’s perception of gender stereotypes and in doing so reduce discrimination for both sexes in the workplace and society.

Updating employment law to reflect societal change should enable parents to juggle work, children and maintain a work/life balance more effectively. However, corporate culture plays a huge part in the practical implementation of statutory employment rights. Employers need to ensure that their culture accords with their family-friendly policies, so that it does not merely pay lip service to them and that parent role models are able to “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk.” Working parents have more choices available to them than their parents’ generation had and that is positive for employers, parents, and their relationship with each other and their children.

This article was written by Michelle Chance (pictured), employment partner at law firm Kingsley Napley and co-founder of the association of professional working parents, and published here courtesy of HR magazine.

Queen’s Speech 2012 analysis: diversity campaigners pleased with shared parental leave proposals but urge Government to go further

The Queen’s speech yesterday confirmed Government plans to introduce a the children and families bill, which will mean mothers in England, Scotland and Wales will be able to transfer maternity leave to their partners.

Denise Keating, CEO of diversity campaigner, ENEI, said: “Progressive employers will welcome the Government’s intention to propose measures to make parental leave more flexible so both parents may share parenting responsibility and balance work and family commitments.

“But this was only one part of the Modern Workplaces consultation that the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) launched last year. There was nothing in the Queen’s Speech on extending the right to request flexible working to all employees and this was a notable omission. We will be disappointed if the proposal is kicked into the long grass because it is seen as being too great a burden on business and we are awaiting the Government’s response to the consultation where it will announce its policy proposals.”

The CIPD study released this week shows that seven out of 10 employers report that flexible working supports employee retention, motivation and engagement. Almost two thirds of employers believe flexible working supports their recruitment activities and half believe it has a positive impact on reducing absence as well as on boosting productivity.

Helen Wells, director of Opportunity Now, the gender campaign from Business in the Community, said: “Two measures in today’s Queen’s speech could give significant impetus to the drive to create fairer and more successful workplaces in the UK.

“We anticipate that announcements will soon be made on the detail of the planned extension of the right to request flexible working. This will be a groundbreaking step on the path towards equality in the workplace in the UK. Opportunity Now has been campaigning for two decades to make flexibility a reality for all employees. From childcare considerations, caring for elderly parents to exhausting commutes, we hope that all employees will have the right to request ways of working that enable them to deliver to the best of their ability. This is not solely about working mothers or the employee; it is about enabling employers to get the best out of all of their people and leveraging this for commercial advantage. Not only that, but flexible or agile working is an essential component in creating the agile workforce that every business will depend on to be competitive in a 21st century world economy.

“The Government is also proposing significant changes to maternity leave that are designed to offer ‘flexible parental leave’ to either parent. This is a huge step towards gender equality as the ability to share childcare responsibility within a family is core to women’s success in the workplace. Yet it is vital that families are supported to make their own choices over how the leave is taken – neither parent should come under pressure to only take the minimum leave. Businesses will need clear guidance on what the parameters are for how and when leave is taken. The prize for getting this right is immense – fathers are involved in their children’s lives right from the beginning and women no longer suffer career penalties for having children.

“At best, these two proposals could drive real change. Too often women come back from maternity leave onto a “mummy track” where a lack of flexibility in job design or the impact of unconscious bias within the workplace means that many women are held back from reaching their full potential. This equates to poor progression and being paid less than male contemporaries. Shared parental leave and the right for all workers to request flexible working will be an important shift in perception over ‘flexibility’ – away from a pure benefit for working parents towards a mainstream way of working that delivers for all employees and for the economy.

“These are big changes that have real potential to enable big strides for women at work, narrowing the gender pay gap and building an economy based on the best of UK talent. Whether they succeed or not depends on how effectively they are implemented.”

“I encourage employers to see work as an activity – not a place, judge people on performance not “presenteeism” and use the change in law as springboard for creating cultures which are truly flexible and deliver maximum business benefit.”

But Working Families chief executive Sarah Jackson added: “We want to see more choice and flexibility for fathers to share the care, and more paternity leave would be a great step forward. But the Government consulted on cutting maternity leave to 18 weeks, which is a step too far. Pushing women back to work too soon will bring hidden costs to employers. There’s still time for the Government to change their minds and guarantee six months for mums.

“We’re disappointed that there was nothing about extending flexible working rights in the Queen’s speech. Good employers already offer flexible working to all their employees because they know that it leads to high performance and reduces costs. We urge the Government to include an extension of the right to request flexible working in their programme to boost economic growth and help everyone get the work-life balance they need.”