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Gender Inequality & Parental Leave: What is the solution?

About The Author

Yasmin Daswani (Former Writer)

Yasmin is currently a third year law student at Durham University. Yasmin aspires to be a solicitor and is currently interested in criminal and family law. Outside of her studies, Yasmin is a passionate sportswoman; she is part of her university waterpolo team.

Although women face inequality in the workplace, this inequality should not be counter-balanced by more inequality.  While the UK is yet to implement a strict quota on female corporate board positions, the government is pushing for businesses to ensure that 25% of board positions are occupied by women in 2015, or face strict quotas.

Whilst quotas are the quickest and most effective way to ensure that there are better-balanced numbers of men and women in executive positions, they discriminate against the individual men who are competing against women for an executive position.  This is manifestly unfair and may cause resentment; promotions should be made after considering a number of factors: business needs, personal merits, commitment to the business, and ability; but not gender.

Instead of addressing gender inequality with more inequality, the government should focus on eliminating the barriers that are causing women to be under-represented in the boardroom.  Male and female graduate entry into the workplace is relatively equal, and this equality is maintained at junior management positions, but suffers a significant decline in senior positions. Therefore firms invest in talented women, only to lose them before they reach senior management levels. This is illustrated below.



One prevalent issue causing this talent gap is maternity leave discrimination, which causes up to 30,000 women to lose their jobs each year.  It is not just mothers who suffer from maternity leave discrimination; once women reach childbearing age they are perceived as a risk and a potentially costly choice for employers to promote as they may fall pregnant and take paid time off work.

A more equitable way of addressing this issue is by reforming parental laws so that fathers are encouraged to take time off to care for their children.   The current system of parental leave is not flexible and does little to promote shared parenting in the first year of a child’s life.  It also perpetuates gender imbalance as it reinforces a culture where women do the majority of caring and are therefore the riskier choice for employers.

If we are able to stimulate culture change so that both parents are able to take equal caring responsibility for their child, then companies will expect their employees to take leave regardless of their gender and women will no longer be the riskier choice.  In addition, as fathers take greater responsibility for their children, mothers are able to increase their labour market participation.

The UK Government have begun to reform laws on parental leave to allow flexibility for either parent to take time off work to care for their children, however the reforms are problematic and, in my opinion,will be largely ineffective.

Shared parental leave

In May 2011, the Coalition Government in the Consultation of Modern Workplaces proposed to implement a new form of shared parental leave that allows families to choose how to care for their child.   These proposals are set out in the Children and Families Bill that is currently on its way through parliament.

Under the government’s proposals, the basic right to maternity leave remains the same, however the mother is able to ‘share’ this right with her husband or partner who has caring responsibility for the child.  Thus parents are able to share 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay and take this concurrently or separately providing they do not exceed what is jointly available to the couple. 

Yet there are many issues with the government’s current proposal.  In a response to the reform plans, the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady identifies that most couples will not be able to afford to take advantage of the parental leave ‘unless it is backed up with better pay.’ The government’s own estimates show that just 1 in 20 fathers would be able afford to take parental leave if it is paid at the statutory rate of £137 per week. 

In addition, current proposals do not offer any incentives for fathers to take paternity leave.  The workplace culture in Britain in some cases mocks men for wanting to go part-time and there is a social stigma attached to a man taking paternal leave.   Therefore many men may be reluctant to take advantage of the new parental leave and may fear that taking time off will disrupt their career.  The introduction of the new Bill needs to address this culture, and provide incentives that encourage men to take on the role of caring for their newborn child.

A further concern is that current proposals do not give exclusive leave entitlements to fathers/partners by extending paternity leave. Intentional evidence has shown that fathers are most likely to take up leave where it is exclusively allocated to fathers.  Yet the Bill currently does not give parents equal and independent rights and could result in mothers sacrificing their own time so that the father can have some.  

To be eligible for shared parental leave, both mother and father need to be economically active and will need to have been in their jobs for 26 weeks before the baby is born. In comparison, maternity leave is a day one right as it is available to all pregnant employees.  According to the Government’s own impact assessment, only 72,000  of the 285,000 maternities in 2010 would have been eligible for shared parental leave due to these restrictive measures: a mere 36%.

Parental leave will be more effective in addressing the gender imbalance if it is paid properly, incentivized, contains a set period of time allocated to fathers only and is a day one benefit.

Sweden as the ideal model

In 1974, Sweden became the first country to replace maternity leave with parental leave.  After realizing that only 6% of fathers were taking advantage of this leave, Sweden provided working parents with 13 months paid leave per child at 80% of the employee’s monthly salary. It also introduced an incentive for fathers to take parental leave; although they are not forced to stay at home, families lose one month of subsidies if fathers do not take the leave.  Additionally, Sweden sets aside two months of leave that can only be used by the father.

The results of the Swedish model are encouraging; companies in Sweden now expect their employees to take leave regardless of their gender.  Statistically, 85% of Swedish fathers take leave, as compared to the projected 2-8% of English fathers who will take advantage of the governments reforms. And most significantly, women made up 26% of boards in 2012.  Sweden successfully reduced gender inequality in leadership positions, and managed to exceed the 25% target that the UK government sought to achieve through the use of quotas.


Introducing shared parental leave to reduce gender equality takes many years; it took Sweden 19 years to reach 26%.  By comparison, Norway, which imposed a gender quota on nearly 500 firms in 2003, successfully raised the proportion of women on boards to 40% in 11 years.

Yet aside from the fact that quotas are discriminatory, women promoted due to quotas may be seen as “token” employees who are less respected and have less power.  The UK government should therefore look to the Swedish parental leave model when developing parental leave legislation as it is more equitable and addresses a root cause of gender inequality.  

Other equitable solutions that can be taken include raising awareness by requiring companies to disclose the proportion of women in senior executive positions and providing onsite childcare and flexible work arrangements. One thing is for sure: the government should not seek to achieve equality through the use of inequitable measures.            

Further Reading

Committee Debates in Parliament

The Guardian, Fathers will be able to share parental leave from April 2015

Financial Director, The New Parental Leave rules- what they mean for the workplace

Eurofound, Tackling gender inequality by extending paternity leaveGovernment Consultation on Women on boards

The Week, Why more men need to take paternity leave


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Tagged: Discrimination, Employment Law, Equality, Family Law

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