Back when I was a student, a motorcycling friend of mine introduced me to the expression ‘All jacket, no bike’. It was a phrase used to describe young men who wore well-scuffed leather jackets without having ridden, let alone owned, a motorbike: they looked the part.
Reading some of the commentary on the changes in parental leave – coming into force in the UK next year – (e.g. here and here) I remembered my old friend’s expression again. Shared Parental Leave has been heralded as an innovation to overturn what Nick Clegg has called ‘Edwardian’ patterns of division of labour, upheld by highly unequal leave structures for women and men, following the birth of their children. Under the new regime, men will be entitled to take up a mother’s unused maternity leave, should she qualify for it, and give permission for the father to do so. This, in theory, increases parents’ choice as to how they share leave after birth.
However, in practice, as I have blogged before, the fact that the entitlement to leave is granted to men via mothers – rather than given to individuals – and that statutory rates of pay are meagre, together mean that fathers’ take-up is likely to be low. As men continue to be more likely to be chief wage-earners in households, it will continue to make economic sense for women to take longer leave, and for men to remain in full-time work in a large swathe of families. And while the new arrangements allow employees to request flexible working, employers do not have to provide it for them. Many have pointed out that flexible working can still carry a stigma, with men fearing that they might miss out on career progression by asking for it. In our current turbulent economic times, these concerns are likely to be heightened, with few willing to put their heads above the parapet to make the request, or to contest decisions made against their preferences. For parents who do want to share employment and parenting responsibilities more equally, the costs can remain high.
So it does rather seem that we are left in a situation where the government has put on the jacket of gender equality, but not, as yet, invested in the bike. Whilst signalling towards equality is welcome, so much more remains to be achieved. Shared parental leave still needs a kickstart.