It Takes A Village: Equal Parental Leave is Just the Start
Telling your employer that you are having a baby is often the most personal conversation you will ever have with them. As a People Lead at ustwo London I have been having these conversations for six years now – and it’s different every time. Starting or growing your family is – all at once – exhilarating, terrifying and a logistical nightmare. All of this is often compounded by concerns about both your own and your partner’s career.
As hard as these considerations and conversations can be – we try to ensure that wellbeing and family come first and any perceived impact on work is carefully managed. Over my time at ustwo we have, both as a studio and as a global company, collectively invested a lot to improve our approach to working parents.
Our other studios have been invaluable sources of inspiration, encouraging us to keep parental leave at the top of our agenda and keep questioning what we can do better. The New York studio’s pioneering Pledge Parental Leave initiative, which just celebrated its one year anniversary and is going from strength to strength, speaks volumes about how seriously they take the issue. Sweden is a world leader, but quite different, because shared parental leave is woven more tightly into their societal fabric – the government leads the way with incentivising parents. We have also taken note from other progressive companies and individuals who are setting positive examples on this issue like Spotify and Netflix.
And I feel ustwo London have just taken a big step forward – we have just introduced equal parental leave. Six months for each parent. We feel, first and foremost, this will enable the mums and dads who work for us have a real choice about what leave to take irrelevant of their financial situation and gives the opportunity to establish a balanced work-home life from day one.
We believe it’s important to share our viewpoint on equal Parental Leave – you just have to read the account of one of our founders, Mills, to see how personally he takes this. However, this is only the first step. Just as we came to this decision through learning from our collective experiences and responding to the needs of the parents who work here – we hope to continue to improve, striving towards an even better workplace for people with and without families.
In this post, I share how we made equal parental leave a reality in London, what we learned along the way and touch on the challenges we still face in making ustwo a place where parents can deliver high-impact, meaningful work – without sacrificing family balance.
Problems With Shared Parental Leave
Despite the introduction of Shared Parental Leave in 2015 across the UK, only 5% percent of fathers are taking parental leave – despite 70% of dads desiring more flexible working to enable them to spend time with their families.
As the modest uptake of Shared Parental Leave (ShPL) shows, we need to start actively encouraging and incentivising men to take time off. The passive provision of ShPL is not forceful enough – it doesn’t take into account how the gender pay gap affects parental leave decisions nor how we are making these decisions from a gendered, traditionally unequal perspective.
Men still earn more than women. Because of this, the financial incentive is often for a man to go back to work before, or instead of, a woman – regardless of her career aspirations. All too often it is no choice at all for a mother. The gender pay gap is still alive and kicking.
Beyond that, the ways we approach parenting and parental roles are still gendered – this is embodied in the unequal provision of statutory pay. A further problem is the separation of family and work. To be successful you must be removed from your home life, at least during working hours – or so conventional wisdom goes.
Whilst an improvement – ShPL is undoubtedly a progression from statutory two weeks (unpaid) paternity leave – it has its own shortcomings which have become evident to me on a personal level through the conversations I’ve had with ustwobies.
Eligibility for shared parental leave as a barrier to entry that prevents single income couples cannot access this benefit, full stop. It’s quite backward because they acknowledge that ShPL can be used by both parents at the same time, an admission that time together as a young family to bond is important. We’ve had 4 weeks' full pay paternity for all for some years, but that does not compare to the 4 months' paid leave our other partners with working spouses had been given to bond.
The second problem is slightly more evasive and speaks to gendered attitudes ingrained in our working culture. Through speaking to partners who work outside ustwo, I have heard first hand how common it is for a father's right to parental leave not to be communicated accurately – or at all. One employee shared with me that not only was her husband not offered leave but that he was also the first man to ask for it in the entire organisation – their response to his request was begrudging and bewildered, to say the least.
And in other cases, men have reported being actively discouraged from taking leave with employers explicitly expressing concern about how it will impact their career. It appears for women taking the time to look after a child is a given – but men taking time to care for a young family is surprising. We are still making key assumptions about the roles that parents should be taking in a family unit based on what gender they are. We need to give families the opportunity to make these decisions for themselves, based on what works best for them.
Doing Parental Leave Well
By our own admission, our family policies are a work in progress. And whilst we are still far from perfect, we are gradually getting a better idea of what works and what doesn't – as well as what we should proritise as our next steps, which will be discussed later in this post.
An invaluable step has been seeing leadership role modeling our policies. Over the past year, three of the London leadership team have taken – or are in the process of taking – their full parental leave. Seeing the way the studios unwavering support for these families has been so affirming.
This is what Collin, our Delivery Director, had to say about his parental leave experience so far:
When my partner and I were in the matching stage of adopting our 14-month old boy last year, our primary concern was ensuring that we could spend enough time with him at the beginning to form a strong attachment and bond. I know, with every bone in my body, that having the opportunity to spend 3 months together establishing ourselves as a family has set the foundation for him to grow up feeling like he belongs and that he is worthy. The ustwo parental leave policy is having a direct impact on this little guy’s life and I’m forever grateful to work for a company that values people the way ustwo does.
As we I mentioned before, communication is undoubtedly key. I offer to sit down with all couples and discuss their options together. When it comes to planning leave, the policy jargon and ambiguous language in the HMRC 57-page technical guide can be tough to get your head around – I look to simply spell out the couple what they are both legally entitled to and what are the important considerations to make and when. I keep track using a personalised Trello board as a shared resource – it will cover reminders around considering training, studio events, benefit selection and more.
Seeing the Value
With both parents taking parental leave, families have an opportunity to create balanced responsibilities in the home and create a shared understanding of challenges of parenting – as well as equally share in the joys of it.
A few months ago, Billy, a designer who has been with ustwo for four years moved from the London studio to ustwo Sydney. Before he left, he shared with us all his journey with us so far. Partway through his presentation he had a slide showing him and his daughter playing and exploring together whilst he was on paternity leave. This was heartwarming in so many ways – that we wanted to share this ‘personal time’ with his ‘colleagues’, that he felt the time he had taken on paternity leave was part of his ustwo journey and that he spoke so positively about the time he’d had to bond with his baby girl. This is what working and having a family should be about.
When we reached out to Billy to speak to his experience, this is what he had to say:
Shared parental care is amazing for everyone, giving fathers a real understanding of what it’s like to stay at home and raise a kid, to build a bond that comes with spending time together and to tackle the daily challenges that come with being the primary carer. My daughter and I spent months adventuring all around London enjoying this rare gift of time to dawdle away days with no fixed agenda other than meal times, bottles & naps. There is nothing quite like ambling down a disused railway line on a Tuesday morning with a thermos of soup talking gibberish with a tiny human. Without a doubt, navigating the challenges of being new parents was made easier and became a wonderful shared experience because I had extended time off to learn how to be a dad, to support my partner as she found her way with our new baby and to support each other. Everyone has different family circumstances but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Seeing how parents want to include their families in events and studio life is affirming what we’re trying to achieve, we’ve always looked to nurture a culture where you can be yourself. We all love it when our Operations Director Liana brings her daughter Lark in on her Keeping In Touch Days. There is never a shortage of open arms for cuddles when required but generally, it’s great to see how normalised bringing kids into the studio is – I’m actually writing this as my son dances around the studio in search of the sweetie stash. Daughters come and pick their fathers from work in the evening, our Friday Afternoon Meeting is sometimes co-presented by the offspring of our colleagues and we make a point with a couple of the larger socials to ensure they are inclusive of families.
To support significant life events we need to look beyond parental leave. Returning to work well is just as essential as having enough time to bond with your new family member. We’re working on setting up our studio better for more flexible working for parents. But dependants aren’t necessarily children, and better flexible working is key to adopting a fair approach to supporting modern families. We’re also looking at the possibility of more team members working a 4 day week, and how working outside core hours might look in a client service business
Our work environment should enable people to do their best work with minimal compromise on family life and vice versa. But it’s a challenge to get it right and one that we want to talk about openly with other companies with similar aspirations and/or business models to hear the what works, what doesn’t and what is important to consider now and in the future by adopting more flexible working models.
If you're working to similar goals or want to have a conversation with us please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.