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Fathers in STEMM: How parental leave parity can help close the gender pay gap

Lecturer Dr David Marsh from the Department of Physics explores how changing the amount of parental leave people are eligible for can benefit both men and women at King's.

I think the disparity between paternity leave and maternity leave should be addressed, with fathers getting comparable leave to mothers. It may seem odd to be writing about paternity leave in a week focused on women, but increasing the father’s entitlement to paid leave not only shares the distribution of unpaid care responsibilities but it’s also important for reducing the gender pay gap that exists in the UK.

Mothers endure childbirth and are often the primary caregiver to a newborn – especially if breastfeeding. In my grandparents’ generation when a woman fell pregnant, she simply left her job and was expected to never go back. Nowadays, we have maternity leave. In the UK, statutory leave (i.e. that mandated by the government) for mothers is 52 weeks: two weeks is mandatory; six weeks on 90 per cent salary; 33 weeks on £172.48 a week which is roughly the same as the dole and the additional weeks unpaid. Many employers offer enhanced versions of this basic package. At King’s, mothers get 20 weeks on full pay. If a mother takes this leave, she is entitled to return to her job afterwards with no penalty.

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Fathers, on the other hand, have historically not been expected to be primary carers. Statutory paternity leave is set at two weeks, and paid at £172.48 per week. Again, many employers offer more: at King’s fathers like me get six weeks full pay. There is also typically an option of ‘shared parental leave’ where the mother can give up some of her leave and give it to the father in an arrangement made between the employers.

The fact that many women in the 25-45 age bracket are considering starting a family, and therefore may take up to 52 weeks away from the workplace, often does not go unnoticed by employers when hiring them. This is particularly true in their mid to late thirties when women who want children are considered (rightly or wrongly) to be up against their ‘biological clock’ of reduced fertility.

This possibility of losing a new employee for 52 weeks may be considered inconvenient by employers. It is illegal to discriminate on grounds of gender, but unconsciously this could lead to a male candidate being favoured as potentially more stable. Add the fact that a mother, even once hired, may take those 52 weeks that her male father colleagues don't get, and she starts to drop behind on the career ladder. Once you've dropped behind, you may become less career-focused, get passed over for more promotion opportunities, and the gender career gap widens.

It's not that fathers want in on the ‘free’ time off, but that equal parental leave is about giving women equal opportunities in the workplace.

By now you should see the problem posed by drastically unequal parental leave. It's not that fathers want in on the ‘free’ time off, but that equal parental leave is about giving women equal opportunities in the workplace.

Equal pay legislation has been in place in the UK for 40 years. However, analysis by Times Higher Education in 2019 put the gender pay gap in universities at 15.1 per cent - King’s sat on this average in 2022.

There are many reasons for the pay gap, but workplace discrimination and career opportunities related to parental leave are believed to be believed to be a key structural cause behind it.

I am hugely grateful for the six weeks parental leave I was able to take. No birth is straightforward, and I think this time was the bare minimum my wife needed from me to offer the support she needed. If I had had any less, I don't know how we would have coped. If I had two weeks on £172.48 and was in a job paid less well than a lecturer, maybe I couldn't have taken anything at all. In such a case, my wife would have suffered, but my career would be fine: she would be the one returning to work months later totally burnt out and dropping behind her colleagues.

The six weeks were hard won. Until this January, King’s offered only two weeks paternity leave, and 18 months maternity leave. The increases in leave were won as part of the local settlement of the Marking and Assessment Boycott, and consequent loss of pay, undertaken by the University and College Union (UCU), which I took part in.

The current situation can and should be improved. Introducing 26 weeks paid parental leave for all parents will help undo the structural inequalities in gender pay. Other countries and other universities prove we can do better. In my previous university in Germany paid parental leave was equal, and it was expected for men to take several months off when a baby was born. We often think of the US as lagging behind the UK in workplace rights, but colleagues in US institutions were visibly shocked when I told them I only had six weeks officially. I'm lucky that academic work, and employers, are flexible, and so I can work easily around this. But being unofficial and unlegislated still gives employers the ability to discriminate, perhaps unconsciously, based on gender.


University employers – where women scientists are likely to be employed – should be forward-thinking and leading this fight for women's rights. We can do better. 

Asking for equal parental leave is not about saying that mothers and fathers experience life with a newborn in the same way. Mothers can be traumatised by childbirth, and need time to recover physically and mentally. Fathers should be able to be there to help them recover and children deserve two parents, not gendered childcare. Mothers should not have their careers and future pay affected by their choice to have a child. When it comes to parental leave, equality between the genders is about giving women the best opportunity to avoid discrimination and achieve as much in their careers as their male counterparts.   University employers – where women scientists are likely to be employed – should be forward-thinking and leading this fight for women's rights. We can do better. 

Note: This article is based on my own experience. It covers circumstances relating to families with newborns where one partner has given birth, and I use the term ‘mother’ as it applies in het/cis relationships since it applies to my circumstances. More generally, one should say ‘birthing partners’. The experiences of single parents or adoption and surrogates are not covered. 

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David Marsh

David Marsh

Proleptic Lecturer

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