Thursday 21 February 2019

Baby steps in right direction with offer of two extra weeks of paid parental leave

In championing parental leave, the private sector needs to lead, not follow, writes Maureen Lynch

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In Budget 2019, the Government is set to offer two extra weeks of paid parental leave.

While we won’t learn the precise details of the scheme until 9 October, it certainly represents a positive step forward in providing greater support to new parents in navigating the acute costs of childcare and the competing demands of two parents’ careers. 

However, there are concerns about just how effective the measure will be. 

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty TD previously expressed concern about the low number of men taking up paid paternity leave in 2017. In the UK, just 9,200 parents took advantage of the shared parental leave scheme, a number deemed to be “remarkably low”.

The Irish Government has decided that this new leave will not be mandatory, but they hope that take-up will be improved by making it non-transferrable between mothers and fathers.  Orla O’Connor, Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, has welcomed this distinction, suggesting it is “an important recognition of the role that fathers have to play in ensuring a more equal distribution of care between parents”.

Ultimately, however, it is not up to the Government alone to encourage greater use of parental leave—the onus must be shared by Irish businesses. Employers that encourage both mothers and fathers to take their full leave allowance will not only help to address the gender pay gap, but will also make themselves more attractive to potential hires.

 

Building a more flexible workplace

To effectively implement parental leave, Irish employers must create a working environment in which taking parental leave isn’t viewed as a hindrance to professional development or earning potential for either men or women. 

Henrik Kleven, an economist at Princeton University, found a sharp decline in women’s earnings after the birth of their first child, with no comparable drop for men. Called the “child penalty”, the cumulative effect is that women earn 20pc less than their male counterparts over the course of their career.

Last year’s Hays Ireland Gender Diversity Report revealed that only 28pc of women maintain the same job with the same hours after having children, compared to 55pc of men. While some women may prefer a change in working hours, these figures show that parenthood has a more significant impact on a woman’s professional life than a man’s.

 

Shared parental leave

The 2017 Gender Diversity Report showed that 38pc of employees believed that new fathers in their organisation do not take the full allowance of parental leave because they fear an adverse impact on their finances; 28% said it was because fathers think they may be viewed as less committed to their career. Over a quarter (26pc) of both men and women said that it was because parental leave is still viewed as the exclusive domain of the mother.

When companies offer equal parental leave, it is vitally important that they create a culture of work-life balance where men are encouraged to take full advantage of the policy.

Certain Dublin-based tech companies including Facebook, LinkedIn and Zendesk offer new fathers between two and four months fully paid paternity leave.  Critically, these companies have created an employer culture whereby male employees are expected to take full advantage of these generous terms.  

One of the key rationales for this policy is that it creates better people managers in the long run.   By taking some time out of the office, a new father returns to his role with a clearer understanding of what it is like for other colleagues re-entering the workforce after an extended absence.       

 

A sound business investment

Supporting a work-life balance for parents results in long-term benefits for the businesses that implement them. Having more women in the workforce increases the available talent pool, thereby addressing skills shortages. It also better enables businesses to attract and retain workers and increase productivity.

Employee work-life balance can be fast-tracked by putting in place career plans and return-to-work schemes. These programmes will also aid more women in hitting the ground running when they return to work.

Creating this culture will give peace of mind to new mothers and fathers, encourage them to take the leave they’re entitled to, and make the organisation more attractive to talented jobseekers.

 

Starting early

Governments should, and must, do more to promote and encourage the uptake of parental leave. However, businesses that wait for governments to act will find themselves at a disadvantage. 

By actively encouraging parental leave uptake and work-life balance, organisations can build a more dynamic and innovative workforce, improve morale, and better attract and retain the best talent. More than that, Irish companies can lead the way in bettering the cause of gender equality, finally giving women a more level playing field.

 

Maureen Lynch is a director at Hays Ireland 

Online Editors

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