Additional Parental Leave: Bit of a damp squib

For once I have a good excuse for not having posted recently: the birth, three weeks ago, of our daughter (Webb2.0, as I like to call her). Now you might expect this joyful event to trigger a cuddly response here, and of course I am chuffed to bits and absolutely besotted with her. However, let’s be honest here: newborn babies are just tremendously irritating. Their constant whinging, at all hours, day and night; their inability to perform even the most basic of biological tasks (the processing of milk and its subsequent disposal as solid, liquid or gas) without inordinate amounts of fuss; and their extreme sensitivity to the slightest suggestion that you’d like them to switch from being cuddled, to lying in their bed – all of these engender a certain grumpiness in this father. So, rather than a Clinton Cards-style paean to the wonders of new life, I am going to have a moan instead. And this particular moan is about how, despite recent developments, we still can’t seem to get parental leave right in this country.

OK, so here’s how parental leave worked when our son was born back in 2010. I got 2 weeks on full pay. The Mississippi* got a choice: 18 weeks full pay, followed by 21 weeks on statutory maternity pay (SMP, about £135 a week), for a total of 39 weeks; or 12 weeks full pay followed by 12 weeks on half pay, followed by 21 weeks on SMP (45 weeks total). Both options can be extended to 52 weeks using unpaid leave. (See here for full details of my University's policy).

Now this system is fine, quite generous even, but it really accentuates differences between mums and dads, and (especially when you are at similar career stages) this certainly contributes towards the gender gap in scientific careers. In an effort to allow for a more equitable division of parental duties, the government has more recently introduced a system of additional parental leave, which (in theory) allows the leave to be shared between the parents, with up to 26 weeks available for dad.

Great, we thought, and started hatching a plan based on something like: I could take (say) 8 weeks of APL, as 2 days a week spread over 20 weeks. This would mean I could be at home for Thursdays and Fridays, when #1 is not at nursery; we could spend some time together as a family and support each other.

But, having eventually made some sense of the various documents, we realised that sadly the system is not this flexible. Or rather, not at all flexible. In fact when you look into the details this new system starts to look less and less attractive, particularly from a dad’s point of view (and especially if dad’s income is ≥ mum’s). First, you (dad) cannot take any of your APL in the first 20 weeks (when, you know, a bit of extra support might be useful). You cannot take any until mum returns to work (so no chance to spend some extra time together as a family). And you have to take it as a solid block (no chance to spend a couple of days at home every week, then).

Importantly too, as a couple there is absolutely no extra money – any time that you take as a dad will only be paid when it falls within the 39 weeks, after that you’re on unpaid leave. And even within the 39 weeks, you’ll only be on SMP. So if you, as a dad, are the higher earner as a couple you’ll be materially worse off by taking advantage of APL, compared to mum taking all the available leave. It seems to me to be a system designed without consulting those who want to use it. And I honestly can’t see it encouraging many more dads to take more than their statutory two weeks, which surely was the intention.

There are encouraging signs that further refinement of this policy is planned – or at least, Nick Clegg has made encouraging noises about this. Remember those halcyon days of ‘I agree with Nick’? Well, here, I do:

From 2015, the UK will shift to an entirely new system of flexible parental leave. Under the new rules, a mother will be able to trigger flexible leave at any point – if and when she feels ready. That means that whatever time is left to run on her original year can be taken by her partner instead. Or they can chop up the remaining time between them – taking it in turns. Or they can take time off together – whatever suits them. The only rule is that no more than 12 months can be taken in total; with no more than 9 months at guaranteed pay. And, of course, couples will need to be open with their employers, giving them proper notice.

All this is too late for me, of course (no chance of Webb3.0, baring a catastrophic accident…), but it seems obvious to me that this is what we should do. We need to throw additional money at parental leave, and trust parents to sensibly and flexibly apportion this between themselves, over the entire course of the period covered. I am convinced this will pay for itself by helping both men and women to balance family and work commitments more effectively. Comprehensive childcare would help too – in my institution, we rely on the Students’ Union to run the (excellent, oversubscribed) nursery, with rather little interest or support from central University. I would love to see universities more generally take the lead in providing subsidised childcare for all staff and students who need it.

But for now, I am conducting a controlled experiment to test my hypothesis that ‘part time academic’ really is an oxymoron.


*For some time I’ve been in a quandary as to what to call my partner (we’re not married), as ‘partner’ sounds too formal, ‘girlfriend’ too frivolous, and other alternatives too icky (‘other half’? Nah) or not entirely PC (the Profanisaurus’s ‘bag for life’…). So I settled on ‘the missus’ as light-heartedly affectionate and ironic – promptly autocorrected by my phone to ‘the Mississippi’, which I rather like…

A note on the title: I was sorely tempted to write ‘damp squid’ (which I’ve seen used more than once in print) as it’s such a lovely image; being a stickler for making sense though decided to stick with the correct version…