Parental Leave in the U.K.: Are We Where We Should Be?

Written by Luke Kitchen
Last updated October 31, 2022

Every year in the U.K., thousands of parents are taking parental leave time to be with their newly born or newly adopted children. For many of these parents, the prospect of this period of leave from work is more daunting than it is exciting. Even with the joy that comes along with a new arrival, the stress of the logistics can take over. 

Parental leave after the birth of a child is still a source of gender inequality for many. Additionally, it causes issues for LGBTQ+ and adoptive parents. While we are further along than we ever were before, it doesn’t seem that we are anywhere near where we need to be to call it truly equal. 

As Aspiring to Include, we think it is important to shed light on these issues. We would love to see a truly inclusive and diverse future for everyone at work, and that won’t happen unless we have open and frank conversations about what’s going on currently.

With that in mind, let’s discuss the topic of parental leave in more detail. 

The Rules for Maternity Leave 

Currently, women who have a child naturally have the highest allowance for parental leave in the U.K. What financial compensation women are exactly entitled to will depend on the job they are in and how long they have been in that job, it will either be statutory maternity pay or contractual maternity pay, depending on your length of service and whether your employer wants to offer contractual pay as a benefit.

However, all women are entitled to take one year away from work for maternity leave if they are a “worker” of a company. You aren’t described as a “worker” if you are an agency, casual, or zero-hours worker. It is possible to start this leave 11 weeks before your due date and your employer cannot deny the leave. You can return to work earlier if you wish but it can’t be any earlier than 2 weeks or 4 weeks for factory/manual jobs

The Rules for Paternity Leave

Men can take 1-2 paid weeks’ leave from work when their partner has a baby. The only time this can be longer is if Shared Parental Leave and Pay are used between two parents. This is where paid leave is allocated between two parents so they may share parental leave after birth. Parents may share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay between them. 

It must be taken from the mother’s allocated maternity leave allowance, so if 20 weeks are used of her maternity leave, a further 30 weeks of leave can be used for the other partner. 

There are certain entry requirements for this scheme and it must be agreed upon by each partner’s employer. You can find out more through the government page.

Same-Sex Couples 

There are different combinations of options for parental leave available to same-sex couples. 

  • For lesbian couples: Mothers who give birth to a child are always entitled to a year’s leave from their employer, as described above. The other mother is entitled to 1-2 weeks from their employer or they can use the Shared Parental Leave scheme. For lesbian couples who adopt, one parent can take 52 weeks of adoption leave if they are employed by a company and meet their criteria. The other parent can take “paternity” leave of 1-2 weeks, regardless of the fact they are a woman. Alternatively, they can again use the Shared scheme to divide this time between the two. 
  • For gay couples: For gay couples using surrogacy or adoption to have their own child, their only option is the adoption leave of 52 weeks, divided in two. There is no “maternity” leave for one partner. However, one partner can take all the time off work if they should wish. 

Are The Parental Leave Rules Fair?

Overall, there are more options now than ever to split the parental leave options between two parents. The Shared Parental Leave scheme is the best way for all couples to take a year of leave between them. However they decide to divide that time is up to them. 

However, it is clear to see from the options above that there are still problems arising for new parents. Largely so in the fact that there is inequality for men and new fathers. 

52 weeks compared to 2 weeks is a big difference. Many men feel that this low offering of paternity leave gives them a tough choice to make at home. Either they lose money and spend time away from work using leaves of absence or holiday time, or they miss out on important milestones at home and leave their partners to do a lot of the work by themselves. For many men, this is an undesirable choice to have to make. 

Similarly, for gay men, it can feel unfair that there is no substitute for maternity leave and that there is no opportunity for both parents to spend some time together at home with their new baby. In the case of adoption, time allocated must be shared between the two, but this leaves no opportunities for crossover. Having only one parent at home at one time can be very difficult and stressful for new parents. 

It isn’t perfect for lesbian couples either, as one female partner is given “paternity” leave unless they also opt for the shared options. This can feel demeaning to many women and they can resent needing to opt into a gender-binary role. With two female parents, there is no need for “paternity” leave. 

Summing Up

Looking at all the discussions above, we can see that we still have some way to go before parental leave options can be considered equal, fair, or enough. There is still a strong favouring of the biological maternal parent and while this can medically make sense at times, it also leaves a lot of other parents out and can make them live the start of their child’s life on the sidelines. 

Adoptive and same-sex parents are faced with tough choices and they often end up spending a lot of time apart in a critical time in their partnership and parentship. 

Having a child is one of the most significant and life-changing moments in any of our lives. Should we be allowed to speed more time at home at this time? Absolutely. And should this time be fair regardless of our gender and sex combinations? Of course. 

For a more equal future, this is something we all need to consider further.

For More on Equality

If you want to learn more about equality at work, check out the rest of our resources on Aspiring to Include. 

We also have a live inclusive job board where you can find the most diverse jobs possible, including flexible jobs for mums

Every bit of diversity helps. 

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Last Updated: Friday December 30 2022
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