Work & Wellbeing Agency Culture Shared Parental Leave

We should be talking more about shared parental leave

By Emma Williams | Strategic performance director

March 8, 2022 | 6 min read

Widespread adoption of shared parental leave across the ad industry could radically improve the work-life balance of staff, writes Space & Time’s Emma Williams.

a child sitting on its parent's shoulders

Shared parental leave provision should become the industry standard, argues Emma Williams / Unsplash

Shared parental leave (SPL) was introduced in the UK in 2015 with the aim of increasing flexibility around childcare, in turn engendering equality in both the workplace and wider society and reducing the gender pay and pension gap. The policy entitles all couples to split the 12 months of leave between them, allowing women to go back to work sooner or to have the support of their partner at home.

And the data shows amazing effects. For every one month of leave my husband takes, I can expect my lifetime earnings to increase by up to 7%. So why is take-up so low with only approximately 2% of couples availing of the scheme?

While SPL affects a woman’s overall earnings and ability to return to work, it also affects her partner’s relationship with their child as they can stay home, bond, care and be present in a way that previous generations were not able to. It’s called a win-win.

If we can adapt to working during a pandemic, social distancing, face masks and bumping elbows, we can certainly manage the idea of a partner staying home and looking after a child. That is the ’new normal’ that I want to read about.

Our son was born in April 2021 and with us both being incredibly driven, work-loving individuals, we needed the system to work for us. I decided to take nine months maternity leave and my husband took four weeks off initially from the birth, going back to work for four months and then taking four months paternity leave so we both returned to work at the same time. It was the best decision we ever made. How had we nearly missed out on the opportunity?

When I found out I was pregnant, I asked friends, both within and outside the industry, about SPL and their experience, but no-one had done it. No-one seemed to know how to do it. From the outset, the logistics of how it worked were unclear. Was this too complicated? Luckily, our respective agencies (my husband works in adland too) were incredibly supportive and made it happen. But that’s where I get angry – it should not be luck. I shouldn’t feel so grateful. It should be accessible, publicized and open to all with no strings.

It’s worth me saying, I am aware how privileged we are that we could afford that time and I am also conscious that some people don’t want to do it that way – that is completely OK too! But I want to work in an industry that promotes opportunity, choice and equality, and that means actively promoting schemes such as SPL that could allow people to find the right balance for them.

The great resignation is upon us and these are the things that now matter. Companies are realizing the value of working parents. Their experience, perspective and skills are wildly valuable. If we want to attract and retain good talent, we need to be promoting policies that truly help people.

Keep your ping pong tables and prosecco on tap – give us subsidized childcare, healthcare, dental plans, substantial paid parental leave, better mental health policies. We need flexible working. We need understanding. Ultimately, we need leaders with empathy.

At Space & Time, I can flex my hours around childcare. When I was pregnant, my manager stepped into meetings for me when my morning sickness got too much or if I simply needed a lie down. When I recovered from the birth, I spent my keeping in touch (KIT) days in new business pitches with our managing director while my husband stayed home with our son. I was promoted before my return

And now, when the nursery calls to say my son has a temperature, I don’t worry about having to dash out and get him the obligatory PCR test because I know that work trusts me. I’ll get my work done but I’ll take care of my son first. We speak candidly about what is and isn’t working, what is and isn’t too much on a four-day week (my husband also works four days by the way).

I could say you can’t put a price on this kind of support and the benefits of SPL among other policies, but you can and you should. We tend to talk in hushed tones about leave (and, unfortunately, not necessarily without good reason), we don’t want to be difficult or make anyone uncomfortable or be discriminated against, but we need to change this dynamic and start being loud. Challenge agencies to share their leave policies upfront.

I’d like to see industry-wide coaching for all staff so that individuals are informed about their options. Let’s share experiences and be honest so that people can learn from each other and things can improve for everyone involved. Surely that’s not too much to ask.

Emma Williams is strategic performance director at Space & Time.

Work & Wellbeing Agency Culture Shared Parental Leave

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