Attitudes towards shared parenting have changed dramatically over the past decade. In 2018, the Shared Parental Leave was introduced in 2015 and take up has increased year-on-year but rates remain low.
The rate of people taking up paternity leave, which has been available since 2003, is much higher, but this leave is only available for up to two weeks with statutory pay, giving fathers little opportunity to get actively involved in childcare in the first year. There are numerous reasons why behaviours lag behind attitudes in this area, including: structural issues with parental leave policies; gender income inequality; men’s concerns about career implications and how taking leave might be viewed at work and in their communities.
The pandemic has resulted in dads stepping up to provide more care
Research undertaken during the COVID-19 lockdown by the Universities of Birmingham and Kent, with managers and employees, shows that during the COVID-19 lockdown, fathers have worked flexibly and done more childcare, although mothers still undertook the majority of childcare and unpaid work in the home.
Fathers who had taken more than two weeks leave following the birth of their child were also more likely to share childcare equally during lockdown. This suggests that encouraging fathers to take more leave after the child’s birth is likely to lead to greater sharing of caring roles in the longer term. Crucially, 73% of fathers surveyed wanted to continue to work more flexibly after COVID-19 so they could spend more time with their families.
Working parents have felt supported by employers
The same research indicates that employees working from home felt their organisations had been supportive during lockdown. Indeed, 73% of those working from home felt their manager cared about the effects that work demands had on their personal and family life, compared to 66% prior to lockdown.
It appears that experiences during lockdown have given managers a broader understanding of employees’ responsibilities outside work. However, parents also identified some negative aspects of working from home during lockdown, including blurred boundaries between work and home, negative impacts on relationships with colleagues and feeling rushed and stressed. This suggests that homeworking needs to be managed carefully, with appropriate support and tools and that some face-to-face interaction is important for the mental-health of employees.
Managers believe productivity has increased during lockdown
Feedback from line managers during COVID-19 shows that 59% reported increased productivity due to homeworking during lockdown and a majority of managers are intending to support future homeworking (74%), in particular because it is a tool for enhancing performance. Therefore, properly managed homeworking can be seen as a win-win for employers and employees.
The impact and benefits of flexible working
So, what impact will these new ways of working have on men’s patterns of work and care in the future? The majority of fathers surveyed planned to ask their employers if that could work from home in the future to spend more time with their families. Where a work culture is open and encouraging of flexible working options for fathers, there will be a real opportunity to bring policies and norms around gendered care in line with current attitudes. This would help fathers to involve themselves more in childcare and develop stronger bonds without feeling judged for not putting their work first.
Flexible working would have benefits all round. Families would benefit from sharing housework and childcare, better relationships between fathers and their children, and improved mental health outcomes for both parents.
Organisations would benefit from increased motivation and productivity, together with a stronger psychological contract between fathers and their employers.
Society would also benefit, given this behavioural change would reduce gender inequality in the work and home. As norms shift around gendered childcare, women would feel less obliged to take the caring role, putting their careers on hold, thus impacting women’s labour market attachment, the gender pay-gap, and the proportion of women in senior positions and on boards.
What can employers do to support lasting change?
Employers have an opportunity here to create long-lasting change, and significantly reduce gender inequality in the workplace. By actively encouraging conversations with fathers about flexible working, employers can tap into the changing attitudes of fathers and break down the last remaining barriers fathers face to caring. This could involve having a return to work conversation with staff once they fully return to the office or, even better, before they return. Such an approach would address any doubts fathers still have that asking for this type of flexibility might indicate less job commitment.
For this approach to be effective, employers would need to review their homeworking and flexible-working policies, while considering the support they offer for homeworking and reviewing their performance management systems to incorporate any changes. The key point here is that more homeworking options could be beneficial for all but only if it is properly supported with adequate facilities, software and managerial support.
Recommendations for employers:
- Update flexible working and homeworking policies and performance management systems to support a homeworking strategy
- Ask staff, particularly fathers, whether they have considered applying for homeworking or flexible-working as they begin to return to the office
- Use banners on the company intranet to demonstrate the company is supportive of flexible-working and encourage use of the policies, targeting fathers in particular
- Consider, where possible, advertising positions as open to flexible working as a strategy for improving employee attraction and inclusion
- Review the support the organisation provides for homeworking, ensuring there are adequate tools, IT support, managerial support and opportunities for face-to-face engagement with colleagues; consider unintended consequences, particularly mental health issues, identified during lockdown
- Invest in new ways to connect with employees, recognise their contribution and celebrate successes when they are working from home
- Where possible, support fathers to take more than two weeks’ leave on the birth or adoption of a child.
Hungry for more detail? Read the full paper: Working from home during the COVID-19 lockdown: Changing preferences and the future of work.
For more information about shared parenting and flexible working, please contact the Equal Parenting Project at the University of Birmingham.