June 29 2021
On 5th April 2015, the UK government launched the Shared Parental Leave policy, under which parents can share leave from work after the birth or adoption of their child. At the time, the government intended the policy to encourage a major ‘cultural shift and help working dads play a greater role in their child’s early months.’ Six years later, however, the policy is widely considered a failure in terms of both design and impact, with no definitive statistics on user numbers but estimates of less than 4% of eligible couples. This missed opportunity to transform the distribution of caring responsibilities in society, where costs of social reproduction are borne by women much more than by men, has important implications for gender equality at work, throughout adulthood and into later life.
The double burden
For decades, feminists have drawn attention to what Silvia Federici has called capitalism’s ‘super-exploitation of women’, following the industrial split of the so-called ‘productive’ work of the factory from the ‘unproductive’ domestic labour of the home. While this perspective ignores that fact that enslaved as well as poor, racialised and migrant women have always worked outside the home, various manifestations of capitalism continued to entrench gendered divisions of labour, peaking with the glorification of women’s domesticity in 1950s advertising in the US and Europe.
Since the 1970s, through a critique of the Marxian focus on wage labour, theorists of ‘social reproduction’ have highlighted how the capitalist system wholly relies on women’s unpaid labour to enable the worker to, well, work. Without laundry, cooking, healthcare, cleaning and, above all, child-rearing, there would be no one to work in factories – and offices, construction sites, and transport hubs. Yet institutions of capital – and following the rise of neoliberalism, state governments – often fail to value and compensate these vital functions.
Women therefore continue to face exclusion from, and discrimination within, paid work as a result of the very reproductive labour that society requires them to perform. In 2016, the Equality and Human Rights Commission reported that 77% of 3,254 surveyed women had encountered a negative or discriminatory experience during pregnancy. We also know that maternity discrimination is a major contributor to the gender pay gap. What is more, racialised and migrant women suffer the most, both lacking bargaining power and facing economic vulnerability, exposing them to the worst-paid and most precarious jobs.
Shared Parental Leave
So, how might shared parental leave fit into this situation? We know that the birth of a first child is a critical moment that shapes the long-term organisation of care in the household. By facilitating a change in caring roles at home, shared parental leave can help to mitigate the discrimination that women face in workplaces, as well as influence who undertakes care work throughout life. At present, due to a maternalistic policy framework, as well as the reciprocal combination of gendered norms and the gender pay gap, women in the UK take relatively long periods away from work, while men do not. Once a partner in a couple has taken time out to care, partly as a result of the effects on their progression, human capital and earning potential, they are more likely to be the person that continues to take on caring responsibilities in later life. Enabling all families to share caring responsibilities provides all parents, not only women, with the rights to spend time providing loving (if often challenging) care for their kin.
Research shows that fathers make use of non-transferable and well-paid leave, when it is offered. In Sweden – where each parent receives 240 days of paid leave, 90 of which are non-transferable and 195 of which are paid at 77.6% of earnings – research has shown that enabling fathers to care can begin to change social norms around the distribution of care. Meanwhile, recent work by UNICEF shows that the UK has among the worst paid leave in the world. At the time of writing, parents in the UK using shared parental leave were only eligible for up to 39 weeks paid, at a statutory rate of only £151.97 per week (as well as 13 weeks unpaid). This is approximately one-quarter of the median UK weekly salary – clearly not enough to live on, especially if you’re the main earner.
Furthermore, the name Shared Parental Leave (SPL) is misleading, as the policy is a transfer of maternity rights over to the second parent: if the birth parent or primary adopter is not eligible, then the second parent cannot access the leave. SPL (as well as maternity and paternity rights) also relies on ‘employee’ status, which given increasing the casualisation of the UK workforce, excludes those already experiencing precarity and in-work poverty. The UK’s maternalistic leave framework also makes sharing difficult for many new families; for example, adoptive lesbian and gay couples are sometimes forced to choose primary and secondary carers based on who earns more or who has the best workplace policy.
The flexibility changes introduced by swathes of employers during the first months of the pandemic have shown us another world (of work) is possible. Research on UK dads’ time use during the first lockdown reports that many have been more involved in care than ever, and the quality of their caregiving has shifted. We also know that dads’ engagement in caregiving has the potential to shift notions of masculinity and start to undo fixed gender roles. However, if the workplace and caring changes seen throughout Covid are to be maintained, new public policy that genuinely enables shared parental leave, as well as universal access to flexible working and working time reductions, are urgently needed. We need to undo pressures for both men and women to conform to ideal worker norms and make flexible working the default – rather than stigmatised and geared towards women. In the recent words of feminist scholar and LSE Professor Mary Evans, we need contracts of work that recognise everyone’s caring responsibilities. Radical! In other words, capital needs to acknowledge its reliance on life-sustaining forces and prioritise provisions for everybody to care above profit and corporate values.
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Jules Allen is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies, Research Officer at the University of Essex working on Shaping the Future of Work: AI and Gender, co-convenor of @GenderWorkGroup, and member of the UK Women’s Budget Group. Jules’ PhD research examines the ways that social and cultural norms influence fathers’ decisions about use of parental leave in the UK, Sweden and Portugal, using an understanding of parenting as gendered and performative. Her main research interests include gender, work, care, social reproduction, equality, heteronormativity, kinship, performativity and social policy. She tweets at @jules_allen_