Shared parental leave - in the footsteps of Scandinavia

International business law firm EBL Miller Rosenfalck looks at how other European countries help working parents to share childcare, and asks whether such initiatives can help to promote gender equality in the workplace.

parent and child
Following the introduction of shared parental leave in the UK, Emmanuelle Ries, Astrid Trolle Adams, Hélène Canard-Duchene and Susanna Grichtmaier, of international business law firm EBL Miller Rosenfalck, look at how other European countries help working parents to share childcare, and consider whether such initiatives can help to promote gender equality in the workplace.Shared parental leave (SPL) came into force in the UK on 5 April 2015. It is a new optional entitlement for employed parents to share childcare responsibilities during the first year of their child's life, or, in adoption cases, the first year after their child's placement.Many hope that these new measures will encourage more men to share childcare, drive gender equality in the workplace, and eliminate discrimination surrounding maternity leave.

How does SPL work?

Under SPL, a mother brings her maternity leave (and maternity pay) to an early end so that she and her partner (who must be working and eligible for the scheme) can share the balance of that leave and pay, up to a total of 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay.This means that fathers are likely to be taking more time off with their child in his or her first year of life (or adoption). Conversely, some mothers may find that they return to work earlier because their child's father is taking leave in their place. Parents may decide to be off at the same time, or to take it in turns to have periods of leave to look after their child.Each employee will be required to give a minimum of eight weeks' notice of their intention to take each separate period of parental leave. Employees will only be able to take three separate sets of leave, or make three changes to the planned dates, during the 52 weeks.Employers will not be able to refuse leave, but they will be able to insist that leave is taken as a single block. New fathers will have a new right to take unpaid leave to attend up to two antenatal appointments.Given that, to make the system work, parents are likely to be liaising with two employers – who may have very different needs and approaches to granting SPL – there is plenty of scope for confusion, lack of coordination, and difficulty in this new system. Managed effectively, however, shared parental leave can build employee engagement and loyalty, provide opportunities to achieve equality in the workplace, and enable more women to proceed into senior roles.

A Scandinavian import

Rumour has it that SPL has its origins in a trip David Cameron took to Sweden, where, as in other Nordic countries, parental leave is strongly oriented towards supporting dual-earner families in which both parents are involved in both the labour market and care work, and earnings related parental insurance benefits entitle both to extensive leave.Not surprisingly, Sweden was a pioneer in reforming maternity leave. In 1974, parental leave replaced maternity leave, with 90 days of paid leave for each parent at that time.Despite the gender-neutral name and the fact that fathers' leave was also paid, fathers generally gave their leave to mothers. In 1995, the 'daddy month' was introduced. This is a month that is earmarked for the benefit of the father. It is not transferable to the mother.In 2012, parental leave was increased from 90 to 480 days, with each parent entitled to two months of non-transferable benefits. The 'daddy' quota was therefore increased to two months. Today, the design provides for two non-transferable months for each parent and 12 transferable months (six that can be transferred for each parent). If one parent does not use the full two non-transferable months period, the remaining time will be lost.The Parental Leave Act (1995:584) regulates parental leave in Sweden, and an employee has the right, as a parent, to leave from her or his employment in accordance with it.Each parent is entitled to take leave from work until their child is 18 months old. The 480 days of paid leave per family can be used during the 18 months, but also afterwards. If days that are reserved for each parent but can be transferred are then transferred from one parent to another, the parent giving up his or her days must sign a consent form.Both parents can take leave on the same days during the child's first year. However, these 'double days' must be maximum of 30.

Leave... but also pay

Parents of children born after 1 January 2014 may receive payment for parental leave until the child reaches 12 years of age; 80 per cent of the leave (384 days) must be used before the child turns four.Most leave is used within the first two years of the child's life, but days are often also used to extend holidays or provide cover when school is closed.A 'gender-equality bonus' offers an economic incentive for families to divide parental leave more equally between the mother and the father. Each parent receives 50 Swedish krona per day, free of tax, for every day they use their leave equally.In the UK, under SPL, employers will not be required to offer enhanced paternity pay in cases where they offer enhanced maternity pay, though they may choose to do so if they wish.Inequality of pay is a key factor that has impeded the uptake of paternity leave, and it is certain to limit the appeal of SPL to cashstrapped new parents. It also projects a cultural expectation that women will be the only ones taking extended periods away from the workplace, which may halt their career progression, stopping the flow of female talent.

SPL in Germany and France

Under German law, a system of shared parental leave is embedded in the Federal Law on parental allowance and leave. German legislation grants both employed and self-employed parents an entitlement to paid parental leave for up to 14 months after the child's birth.Parental leave must be taken for a minimum of two months by either parent, and one parent can take up to a maximum of 12 months. If both parents share childcare, parental leave will be extended for an additional two months.In France, parental leave is a right, and an employer cannot refuse a request for it. In order to benefit from parental leave, the employee must have been employed for at least a year in the company by the date the baby is born or has been adopted. Parental leave begins at the end of maternity leave.

A significant cultural shift?

In the UK, Statutory Maternity Pay stands at 90 per cent of the mother's salary in the first six weeks of leave. It is capped at £139.58 per week for the remaining 33 weeks.Any further maternity leave is unpaid, and so are paternity and parental leave. Shared parental leave will enable fathers to benefit from SMP (at the capped amount) for the weeks that are shared.Bigger organisations often provide for enhanced maternity pay. There is no obligation in the legislation to match such provisions for fathers, but, if SPL is to work and fathers are to be willing to share, there will be a need for such organisations to match pay for leave granted to mothers and to fathers. Arguably, it could be discriminatory not to do so.In Sweden, the government has put in place measures (including remuneration by the state at least three times as generous as those in the UK) to both shift the cultural expectations that it is mothers who take leave and ensure that parents can afford a long break from work.Germany and France (mirroring the Swedish 'daddy month' approach) have recently put in place financial incentives for fathers to take leave by allocating some leave to fathers only; the family as a whole loses out on the amount of their collective paid-leave entitlement if the father does not take his quota.Certainly, Sweden is very advanced in creating a culture where childcare does not affect the career of the mother only. If the UK is to move in this direction sooner rather than later, big companies and the government will have to look at the pay aspect of shared parental leave – and, of course, at increasing the provision of affordable childcare to encourage parents to return to work a year or so after the birth of their child.Don't miss the Re:locate Guide to International Education & Schools, published Autumn 2015.For more Re:locate news and features, click hereClick here to read the full digital issue of Re:locate magazine Autumn 2015
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