When you interview as a woman of a certain age, it can feel like you’ve got a buzzing neon sign above your head, emblazoned with the words “it’s only a matter of time!”.
You imagine visions of 12 months of maternity leave, retraining costs, and general upheaval filling the heads of the people sitting in front of you. The sad reality? That may be accurate. It’s also just one of the many unconscious biases that exist at work.
We’ve spoken about unconscious bias before, and the dangerous tendency to pass it off as ‘culture fit’ when it affects the hiring process. And it’s not just in recruitment – one study showed that female investors are assumed to be less knowledgeable and in control of their portfolios.
But when it comes to biases against ‘women of childbearing age’, it’s a challenge for everyone. And a lot of that comes down to parental leave – that inconvenient period of time people need to swap ‘work’ for ‘life’ in their priorities. From women disadvantaged in hiring and progression scenarios, to men pressured to take minimal time off, the situation isn’t ideal for anyone.
And until something’s done, nothing will change: women will never make up their fair share of leadership teams, or be viewed as equal contributors. And men will never get the quality time that’s so beneficial for them and their families.
What you may argue is that, in the UK at least, we already have provisions in place for shared parental leave – including paid maternity leave and statutory paternity leave. Doesn’t that solve the problem?
Well, unsurprisingly – given that its policy-makers estimated take-up could be a meagre 2% yearly before it launched – this scheme has largely been deemed a failure. And that’s for many reasons:
What’s the alternative then? Some encourage a ‘use it or lose it’ model, where mothers, fathers, or other applicable guardians get a set time of paid leave each. This means no-one misses out on that all-important time or is viewed by employers as a problem waiting to happen.
Let’s be realistic, change is slow. And policy changes mirror that. But UK organisations – charities, businesses, or other – have the ability to act a lot faster, and lead by example.
This isn’t just about parenting, or work-life balance. This falls into the same category as conversations about the gender pay gap, and other big societal imbalances. By making it “affordable” and “acceptable” for men to take just as much leave as women, not only do the ‘downsides’ of hiring women fade, but societal attitudes can gradually start to shift.
Waiting for real, effective shared parental leave to become mandatory will stall this – but businesses can take the initiative, and make it a ‘perk’ of their own employee value proposition.
As part of an initiative to boost equality, in 2021 the John Lewis Partnership launched its shared parental leave scheme – offering all 80,000 employees six months of paid leave for all guardians. They also offer two weeks’ of paid time-off for mothers and fathers experiencing a loss of a pregnancy.
Aviva started early, compared to most, launching its equal parental leave policy in 2017 – offering all parents 6 months of paid leave, with 12 months offered in total – and including adoptions in their offering. In 2020, 99% of new fathers took parental leave with 84% taking at least 6 months – showing that, when the offering is right, uptake can be high.
In 2021, Vodafone launched their ‘Global Parental Leave Policy’. This scheme offers all employees – regardless of sex, orientation, or time served – 16 weeks of paid leave. And for any partner of someone giving birth or adopting a child, this can be taken whenever they choose during the first year and a half. For those returning to work after maternity leave or paternity leave, they also allow working 80% of your usual hours on full pay for six months.
If you’re wondering ‘what is shared parental leave going to do to employee engagement?’, it’s a fair question. It seems like a daunting policy to implement, and now one without it’s costs and considerations, so it’s worth doing research into the call for it.
By listening to your employees through surveys, you can identify if struggling to balance work and life is an issue in your organisation – and if elements of gender bias are present. This could be discovered in an Inclusion Survey, Wellbeing Survey, or a survey on any topic really – as our language analysis tech will show you if parenting and gender-related themes come up.
Find out more and try our Employee Feedback Platform: