Author Mark Richards

Insurer Aviva has radically overhauled its policy on paternity leave. Will we see other UK employers following suit? Or will men remain too worried about their careers to take time off for a new baby?

Unless you are a die-hard football fan – or a supporter of Wigan Athletic – you have probably never heard of Ryan Colclough. Aged 22, born near Stoke-on-Trent, Ryan plays as a winger for Wigan – and last week they were at home to Doncaster Rovers.

…And the game was going well, especially for Ryan. An hour of the game gone and the Latics were leading 2-0. And Ryan had scored both the goals. Then the fourth official held the board up: Wigan was making a substitution. Unbelievably no. 27 was on the board: Ryan’s number. “What?” muttered the fans. “The lad’s on fire. On for a hat-trick.”

Ryan was indeed on for a hat-trick: but not in the footballing sense. He had received a pre-arranged signal from his Dad, sitting up in the stands. Ryan’s wife had gone into labour. He came off, raced to the maternity unit – still in his blue and white striped kit – and got there in time to see his wife give birth to their second child, a son. And the congratulations poured in on social media…

So Ryan’s a new dad – and, presumably, now entitled to some paternity leave to help his wife recover from the birth and bond with his new son. No chance. On Saturday Wigan was away at Rotherham and there on the wing was Ryan (no, he didn’t score: but Wigan did win 3-1).

Paternity leave in the UK

Maternity leave – time off work for a new mother – is a well-established concept in the UK. But what about paternity leave – time off for Dad? Think again. In the UK, new dads are entitled to two weeks’ paternity leave, paid at £139 per week, or 90% of your average weekly pay, whichever is the lower.

Shared parental leave has been available for three years, but the take up remains low, with some estimates putting it as low as 10% of eligible parents. When you see the ‘pay’ you can understand why.

What about maternity leave?

At the moment the two basic facts about maternity leave are these:

  • Most employed mothers are entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave
  • Statutory maternity pay covers the first 39 weeks. It is usually paid at 90% of the mother’s first six weeks, with the remaining 33 weeks at £140.98 a week or 90% of their weekly wage, whichever is the lower.

Seeing those figures it is easy to understand why fathers are so reluctant to take time off: they simply cannot afford to do it. And there is also clear evidence that men worry about taking time off. Will it harm their career prospects? Will they slip down the corporate pecking order?

How does the UK compare to the rest of the world?

Paternity Leave in the UK

‘Not well’ is the answer. The TUC has long been critical of the UK’s provision for maternity leave, labelling it among the worst in Europe, with only Ireland and Slovakia having worse statutory provisions. We are no better with regard to paternity leave – especially if you compare the UK to Sweden.

Last year a new incentive was launched in Sweden, encouraging new fathers to take three months paid paternity leave. Like many European countries, Sweden specifically encourages fathers to take time off, and this latest move is a 30-day extension on the previous two months.

Sweden was the first country to introduce gender-neutral parental leave in 1974 and men there take an average three months off to help with new-born children.

Around the world, there is a wide range of paid – and unpaid – paternity leave. There is no formal paternity (or maternity) leave in the United States for example, with the decision on how much paid or unpaid time off a new parent gets resting with the employer. Iceland offers 90 days on 80% pay, while in Germany men and women have equal rights to parental leave of 12 to 14 months on 65% of the individual parent’s salary.

Will Aviva change all that?

Maybe Ryan should hang up his boots and go and work for Aviva – or Norwich Union if you are as old as I am. The UK’s biggest insurer has now said that it will allow all parents the same amount of leave after the arrival of a child, with all employees now able to take 26 weeks’ paid leave, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation. Aviva has 16,000 employees and the new policy applies whether staff have given birth, adopted or had a child through surrogacy.

So the move by Aviva – which will nearly double the EU minimum of 14 weeks – could be a real game-changer: they argue that it will ‘create a level playing field’ for parents who want to take time out of their career to spend with a new baby.

Maybe we need role models?

While the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) welcomed the move by Aviva, they acknowledged that there was a still a need for role models, “to foster a change in perceptions. Otherwise, male employees may still be reticent about taking time off, even if they are paid.”

But even if the time off is available, the question remains: will men take it? The CIPD (the professional body all human resources managers belong to) said that take-up up of paternity leave among men remained low. You suspect that in Sweden all men take paternity leave – and therefore no-one suffers in the office rat race – but in the UK men remain scared to do it.

Aviva’s chief executive, Mark Wilson, said, “I want to live in a world where the only criteria for someone’s success is their talent, not their gender.” But the company did go on to suggest that take up of paternity leave would be helped by role models. Perhaps the best role model so far has been Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, who took two months’ paternity leave when his daughter was born in 2015. His second daughter, August, was born this year – no prizes for guessing the month – and he again took two months’ leave, split between the first month and the whole of December.

But Zuckerberg is American: we need someone in the UK. If only there was a high profile personality likely to get engaged at any minute…