Public attitudes to parental leave
In this final section, we turn to the public's views on one policy measure designed to make it easier for men and women to share breadwinner and carer roles: parental leave for parents with a newborn child - which we asked about for the first time in 2012. It is in these circumstances, where parents have young children, that we have seen the public continuing to advocate the most 'traditional' division of gender roles.
The current provision of paid leave for parents of a newborn child is set out on the government website (GOV.UK). Currently, employed mothers can take up to 52 weeks leave, of which 39 weeks has an entitlement to statutory maternity pay. The first six weeks of this is paid at 90 per cent of average weekly earnings (AWE) and the remaining 33 weeks are paid at £136.78 or 90% of their AWE, whichever is lower. Paternity leave allows only one or two weeks paid ordinary paternity leave, and up to 26 weeks of paid additional leave, but only if the mother returns to work. For many families there is a considerable financial disincentive for the father to take paid leave. The gender pay gap means that on average men's hourly wage is higher than that of women. If the couple make a decision about how to divide up work and care in order to maximize the family income, then it is usually advantageous for the woman to take maternity leave, as the pay penalty is not as large as it would be if the man took paternity leave. Plans to introduce shared parental leave are in the pipeline, with the goal being to encourage fathers to play a more active role in care, from when the child is born. However, this is likely to be a symbolic gesture, which does little to shift maternity and paternity take-up. To be more than symbolic, statutory pay would need to be increased markedly. This is not realistic in the current economic climate.
To see what arrangements the public believes should be in place to support couples with babies, who should provide them and how they should work in practice, British Social Attitudes asks:
Consider a couple who both work full-time and now have a newborn child. One of them stops working for some time to care for their child. Do you think there should be paid leave available and, if so, for how long?
And who should pay for this leave?
Still thinking about the same couple, if both are in a similar work situation and are eligible for paid leave, how should this paid leave period be divided between the mother and the father?
The results are presented in Table 5.9. Most people believe that there should be some paid parental leave when a child is born: just one in ten suggest that no paid leave should be available. The majority of people think that parents should be given at least six months paid leave (33 per cent between six months and a year, 28 per cent a year, and four per cent more than a year). The majority view, among those who think that some period of leave should be provided, is that the government should pay for at least part of this leave: 16 per cent think it should be solely responsible and more than half think the responsibility should be split between government and employers. One in eight thinks it should be solely the responsibility of employers to cover parental leave.
When it comes to how paid leave should be divided between mothers and fathers, there is clear support for the mother taking all or the majority of this leave (16 per cent think she should take all the paid leave and a further 43 per cent think she should take most of it). This reflects the majority support noted earlier for mothers staying at home, or working part-time, when there is a child under school age - and confirms that this support is not simply a reflection of what is currently available in terms of policy options, but rather what people think government policy should be. However, one in five people think paid leave should be divided evenly between the mother and father. So there is limited support for the proposed policy of allowing mothers and fathers to share parental leave.
Interestingly, the views of men and women in relation to this issue are relatively similar. There is a tendency for women to support a longer period of paid leave - one year's leave is the option most frequently selected by women, while men most commonly say that less than a year's leave should be available. Men and women are relatively united in their attitudes towards who should pay for this leave. And, while women are slightly more in favour of sharing the "carer" role, the fact remains that just one quarter advocate the mother and father sharing the period of paid leave and none recommend the father taking the majority or all of the leave. Clearly, when it comes to caring for a child under school-age, there is much more public support for a traditional division of labour roles, among both sexes, even when policy options facilitate a more diverse range of possibilities. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that there is much greater support among the youngest age groups for the paid leave being divided between the mother and father; 44 per cent and 26 per cent of those aged 18-25 and 26-35 respectively think that both should take half of the leave, although numbers in the youngest age group are small, so this finding should be interpreted with caution. On the other hand, just 13 per cent of those aged 66+ think the paid leave should be divided in this way, reflecting the higher levels of support for a traditional division of gender roles when it comes to childcare among the older age groups, noted previously.
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- When this question was originally developed in 1984, it asked about "a husband" and "a wife" rather than "a man" and "a woman". This was replaced by a variant of the question using the latter terminology in 1994.
- In 2002 and later years, answer categories were framed with reference to the respondent - "always me", "usually me", "about equal", "usually spouse/partner" and "always spouse/partner". In 1994 and earlier years, response categories were framed with reference to the gender of the individual performing the specific task - "always the woman", "usually the woman", "equal or both", "usually the man" or "always the man". The data presented in Table 5.6 was re-classified for the later years, to reflect the format in which the question was asked in earlier years.
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