Shared Parental Leave Diversity & Inclusion Gender Equality

One year on, what impact has shared parental leave had on the advertising industry?


By Katie McQuater, Magazine Editor

April 5, 2016 | 7 min read

Today marks a year since shared parental leave was introduced in the UK, but it has barely made a mark on the advertising industry. We find out how agencies have handled it and hear from one couple who have taken advantage of the new legislation.

A year after the introduction of shared parental leave, its impact is yet to be truly felt in the advertising industry.

According to industry body Nabs, only two per cent of parents in the industry have taken up shared parental leave. Time pressures and worry over extended periods away from the industry continue to be high on the list of concerns for parents.

"We know the ad industry is providing more and more support to working parents, however more needs to be done in focusing on, and dealing with, the changing role of mothers and fathers in our industry," says Lorraine Jennings, head of support at Nabs.

"We’ve found that a factor in the lack of uptake comes from the belief that an extended period of time off – particularly for fathers – will be frowned upon. This perception is something that, as an industry, we need to tackle."

The Drum approached a number of agencies for this article, with most yet to have any eligible employees take up the offer of shared parental leave.

Creating cultural change takes time, however, and deeply ingrained societal norms don't often shift naturally following legislative changes. Lucy Jameson, chief executive of Grey London, says the lack of uptake from men at the agency indicates that legislation on its own isn't enough to affect change.

"Legislation isn’t enough; it’s a deep cultural issue. Apart from the practical basics of breastfeeding, there is still a societal unconscious bias that it’s a woman’s job to bring up the children and that her career matters less than her partner’s. And in the workplace, it's exacerbated by a terrible culture of presenteeism, which assumes that if you’re not in the office, you’re lazy and lack ambition.

“A big, deep generational shift is needed. We are only now in the UK approaching a point where 50 per cent of the workforce is female. Most of today’s new parents grew up in an age in which mothers didn’t work. By the time my daughter grows up, having two working parents will be seen as the norm and therefore the idea of a father taking parental leave will also be seen as far more culturally acceptable."

Sadie Joy, head of people at MullenLowe London, says the agency has matched the benefits for shared parental leave with its existing maternity leave. Despite this, it hasn't been taken up as yet. "We've supported more than a handful of new mums and dads and we’ve had conversations about shared leave with all of them, but it’s not been right for the individual couples. It's not for everyone. What’s important is that it’s available, along with flexible working options.”

Joy also echoes Jameson’s call for a longer term shift in behaviour as the industry looks to the next generation to support them as they become parents.

Breaking the mould

For one couple within the industry, shared parental leave has allowed them to have a shared experience of the responsibilities of parenthood as well as a mutual understanding of the difficulties of returning to work after an extended period.

Thom James, head of social at Isobar, says it allowed him to play a 'major' role in his child's early development. It also enabled his partner, Katy Woodrow Hill, board planning partner at Dare, to return to work earlier without her own career being impacted.

"It's a shame more dads haven't taken it up, but hardly surprising," says James. "There was little awareness amongst expecting fathers I spoke to when we were planning for taking shared leave, and we can't expect those deeply entrenched traditional gender roles to shift in the space of 12 months."

While the agency was very supportive of the decision and offered flexibility on his return, James adds that the return isn't easy.

"I was out of the business for six months, and while it's nice to be taxing the old grey matter again, you certainly get acute withdrawals from spending that time with your child."

Woodrow Hill says the experience of sharing their leave has created a mutual understanding. "When Thom finished his own leave and had to adjust to leaving our baby and being back in the world of work I understood his pressures, excitement and anxieties because I'd done it a few months earlier. This empathy has meant we've been able to support each other through some big changes."

"Returning to work after leave is tough, even if you want to be back working. You have to work hard reassert yourself, deal with your own life changes and with any changes that have happened at the office. And all whilst trying to work in a way that suits your new family."

Lack of awareness is another barrier to take-up; cross-industry research released by My Family Care and the Women's Business Council found that along with financial concerns, many individuals were simply not aware of the options available to them.

According to former Liberal Democrat employment minister Jo Swinson, companies should take up the mantle in ensuring employees are aware of the legislation.

"Employers have a key role to play here. It's a new policy so some people aren't yet aware of it," Swinson tells The Drum. "They can do this by enhancing shared parental pay, being positive about shared parental leave within the organisation and sharing the experience of someone who has gone through it.

"You don't change attitudes overnight, and if you are the first man in your company to take shared parental leave you're something of a pioneer. The men that have been using it have been talking really powerfully about how important this has been for them, about the bond with their child and what this has done for their family."

At Maxus, a new policy is offering all new parents, regardless of gender, 26 weeks' paid leave along with full employee benefits. Since its introduction in January, four new fathers have taken up at least some of the paid allowance, says the agency's head of people and culture, Kirsten Oates.

It is clear that despite the introduction of legislation, societal change will need to follow before the sexes achieve parity over parental leave. But accelerating the slow pace of behavioural shift takes more than just policy, argues Jameson.

“In this case, the government has gone straight to legislation without creating the right cultural environment for it. Communications needs to play a role.”

Despite lots of discussion around diversity and equality, and undeniably commendable moves to become a more inclusive place, the industry is still geared in favour of men.

“Advertising has always done a great job of banging the cultural drum, but it’s never really led the charge when it comes to employee welfare – adopting a more ‘chew them up and spit them out’ approach,” says Simon Labbett, founder of Hometown London. “That said, the employee is in the front foot now, and quality of life is at the top of most people’s agenda, probably more so than income.”

With an employee base increasingly comprised of millennials, as the next generation navigate parenthood, discussions around work-life balance, equality and flexible working are likely to become more and more pertinent, so never has there been a better time for the industry to be on the front foot and lead by example.

Shared Parental Leave Diversity & Inclusion Gender Equality

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