Why supporting families and shared parental leave makes business sense

Encouraging shared parental leave is one way that media industry employers can help keep women in their workforce. So why aren't more dads taking part?

Why supporting families and shared parental leave makes business sense

It gives me no pleasure to say that I work within one of the sectors of business with the worst records for promoting diversity at its senior levels. The media world might be staffed fairly equally between men and women but there are still very few women in positions of power. So it was very good news to hear earlier this month that HP’s chief marketing officer Antonio Lucio has given his five advertising and PR agencies 30 days to come up with a plan to increase their representation of women and ethnic minorities in key creative and strategic roles.

Lucio said – and I couldn’t agree more – that this is “not only a values issue, but a significant business imperative” as women buy 53% of personal computers. General Mills has also made it clear to agencies pitching for its business that they must show they have 50% female and 20% minority staffing. Even if agencies haven’t listened so far to the huge weight of evidence that tells us increased diversity equates to better business outcomes, an instruction from those that pay them is likely to prompt action.

So where’s the best place to start for an agency that knows it has some issues on this front? My tip would be to focus efforts on women returning to work after having a child. Plenty of research points to this as being the point that blocks the ‘talent pipeline’ – potential agency leaders of the future simply drop out of the workforce when it becomes too difficult to combine parenting with work.

This is a complex issue. We work in an industry famed for its early morning, late nights and weekend working, as well as a requirement to check emails from our phones at all hours. Employers are just trying to get the work done, rather than consciously keeping women out of senior ranks. But we need to shift attitudes from believing that this new chapter in our employee’s life is going to be bad news for their work commitment. Presenteeism is a real problem in our industry; we should question the idea that spending a long time in the office equates to top performance.

Have you seen how efficiently a mum can work when she knows she has to get out of the office at 5pm to pick up her baby? There are few training courses that are as effective at improving your ability to juggle tasks than new motherhood. I know – I’ve been that busy working mum and an employer so I can see it from both sides.

Making things easier for our new mums at that point of return to work is pivotal – it often heavily influences how they feel about remaining in their job. The UK government recognised this, bringing in legislation last year that made it possible for both parents to share maternity leave for up to 50 weeks and statutory pay for 37 weeks. This means that partners can now take far more leave than the old basic two weeks, either in parallel with mum or after she returns to work.

One year after shared parental leave appeared in the UK however, ad charity NABS estimates that in the ad industry only 2% of new parents have taken advantage of the facility. Research also shows that in the sector a quarter of men don’t feel that their employer supports them to balance their parenting responsibilities with work.

Clearly, as an industry we need to work much harder to create a climate that allows partners – mostly men – to feel that it won’t harm their careers to take this time out of the office. In a sense, who can blame them: they’ve probably spent their careers to date watching senior women’s careers stalling after maternity leave. But I am hopeful that with some sustained effort over the next few years, we can facilitate a culture of openness to new ways of working. If we as an industry can help support men to support their partners, we can encourage women to believe that they don’t have to make a straight choice between a family and a career. We’ll all benefit from that. 

Frances Dickens
Frances Dickens

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