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New Forms of Fathering?

Authors: The Work Foundation Professor Claire Wallace, co-ordinator of Workcare

21 February 2011

The Coalition’s proposals to extend paternity leave arrangements being introduced in April to enable fathers to take up parental leave flexibly were rigorously discussed at a workshop held last week at The Work Foundation. The aim of these proposals is to enable fathers to take a more active role in parenting, allow women to return to work sooner and strengthen father-child relationships. Along with positive effects upon the social and cognitive development of children, it also appears to answer the needs of fathers, who have long expressed a desire to spend more time with their children.

However, the low level of financial compensation offered means that few fathers will be able to afford to take up this opportunity. Research from across Europe (especially the Scandinavian countries where paternity leave has been implemented for many years) indicates that if maternity and paternity leave are transferable, men are less likely to take it. Furthermore, employers, trade unions and fellow workers are likely to undermine any attempt by fathers to exercise these rights.

Four key issues were keenly debated at the event:

  • Can Britain afford the Nordic model of parenting? Nordic countries have the most successful record of engaging fathers. But if wage compensation of at least 50% is required to make lengthy paternity leave realistic, then this is unlikely to happen in our current climate of savage public sector cuts. But some Nordic countries, such as Denmark or Iceland, are not necessarily wealthier than the UK, so the issue of ‘cost’ could be seen as one of different priorities. One attendee wondered if Nordic countries are prosperous because of their social model.
  • The costs of not involving fathers – in terms of health, broken relationships, pressure on mothers – might also be high. Many employers already offer extensive paternity leave that goes beyond that required by legislation and view this as good practice. Indeed, the ‘business case’ for parental leave can be made in terms of more engaged workers, more satisfied workers and a better working environment. Men who take paternity leave learn new skills of empathy, time management and an appreciation of flexible working.
  • Women already earn more than men in an increasing number of families, so paternity leave is less of a financial loss to larger numbers of families. This trend may accelerate in future - although it is likely it will still only apply to a minority of men.
  • Should men be forced by policies to take parental leave or is it a question of adopting so-called ’nudging’ tactics? While it is desirable to give people a choice, men are unlikely to take paternity leave unless pushed into it by having a 'use it or lose it' policy with funds ring-fenced to cover this cost. Research shows men are generally happier if they are involved in caring roles. But as one attendee said, people don’t always do what is best for them when given the choice.

In general, most people at the event agreed that although the current proposals probably don’t go far enough in creating new forms of fatherhood, they should be seen as a first step towards incremental change which could, perhaps eventually, lead to a cultural shift in attitudes.

Professor Claire Wallace is the WorkCare coordinator at Aberdeen University

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 4 Comments)

Thanks very much for the blog entry and the highly interesting lecture.

I think one point missed with the debate on whether we can emulate the Nordic countries in terms of paternity leave provision is that Britain is currently far beyond many other countries in Europe with far less GDP per capita including countries from the former Yugoslavia such as Slovenia whose government's pay a much larger proportion of the new father's salary. According to the Tavistock Institute's recent study a great many fathers took annual leave after birth because they couldn't afford to live on the paternity leave stipend; a very poor state of affairs.

Pointing to the Nordic countries as a target is a few steps beyond where Britain is now, and indeed, having a less fashionable country such as Slovenia as the target may bypass the usual excuses on how we can never truly copy the Scandinavian models.

Claire Wallace

23 Feb 2011 4:09PM

Thanks for that David. You are absolutely right that some of the progressive poorer countries might put us to shame!

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