Parental leave changes could improve the position for working women

Changes to parental leave will allow fathers to take year off work, but what does this mean for working women asks family law specialist Dr Ruth Gaffney-Rhys.

As a legal academic with a particular interest in women’s issues I pay close attention to the passage of legislation that affects women and girls.

The Children and Families Act 2014 was enacted just before the last International Women’s Day and key provisions of it will come into force in April this year.

Part 7 of the Act creates a right to shared parental leave for eligible working parents. From 5th April 2015 a woman can share 50 out of the 52 weeks maternity leave with her partner, who may be male or female and may be the woman’s spouse, cohabitant, civil partner or the father of her child.

The couple will be able to take their shared parental leave simultaneously or they can elect to take consecutive blocks of leave: they can therefore organise parental leave to suit their own circumstances. As Jenny Wilmott, Employment Relations Minister explains: ‘current workplace arrangements have not kept up with the times. The Children and Families Act will bring the way new parents balance their working and home lives into the 21st century’.

The Act also enables parents who share parental leave to share the statutory pay that is available. At present statutory maternity pay (SMP) is paid for up to 39 weeks which means that the partner of a woman who shares her statutory leave will receive statutory shared parenting pay (ShPP) for up to 37 weeks. Measures are also introduced to provide equivalent rights to couples adopting a child. It should be noted that the Act does not enable parents to share contractual maternity pay, but it is hoped that these reforms will result in a culture change in the British workplace, with employers voluntarily increasing entitlement to paternity pay.

It will be interesting to monitor the uptake of shared parental leave and to observe whether an increase in co-parenting improves the position of women in the workplace because they are no longer assumed to be the primary carer of their children.

About the author: Dr Ruth Gaffney-Rhys specialises in Family law and is the Co-director for the Centre for Gender Studies in Wales.