Shared Parental Leave: Could this be the answer to the Motherhood Penalty?

For women’s history month Mullenlowe's Siobhan Brunwin spotlights an issue preventing achieving gender parity

Siobhan Brunwin

People Director MullenLowe Group


We are currently in women’s history month, a month dedicated to celebrating the achievements and contributions of women as well as spotlighting issues that still prevent us from achieving gender parity. Just last week we saw research from PWC released on  ‘the motherhood penalty’, which found that the gender pay gap had widened four times faster in the UK in 2021 due to the specific disadvantages faced by women who have children.

The Motherhood penalty exists for main reasons: unless you’ve been living under a rock you will be well aware of the current childcare crisis that the UK is experiencing - we currently have the second most expensive childcare in the world. Finally, the government have started to notice this problem (mainly due to the heroic work of Pregnant and Screwed) and have set out plans in their recent budget to address this. The credibility of this plan is very much under scrutiny though and with many questions about timing and funding and clearly not enough childcare providers it’s not going to take a long while to truly fix the broken system. Assumptions are more likely to be made about woman with children and how ‘committed’ they are to their career, yet when men become fathers research shows they are more likely to get promotions and payrises. The systemic unbalance that is happening in households is a huge factor in the motherhood penalty, women are still finding themselves doing the vast majority of household chores with data from the ONS showing that women do 60% more of the unpaid labour. 

The systemic unbalance that is happening in households is a huge factor in the motherhood penalty.

Siobhan Brunwin, People Director, MullenLowe

In 2015 the government introduced their shared parental policy to give a ‘clear message that responsibilities for providing care in the child’s first year should be shared’ and offer families greater choice. However, since its introduction it has only been taken up by between 2% - 7% of eligible parents. The lack of data around its use makes it difficult to read which industries are leading the way in championing SPL and who in fact is making use of the offer whether they be heterosexual couples or those from the LGBTQI+ community.

When I fell pregnant in 2021 my husband and I straight away agreed that shared parental leave was something we wanted to do. We both wanted to share the opportunity to spend some proper time with our daughter during her first year as well as being able to set out on a parental journey trying to actively share our responsibilities. Although not without its challenges, 18 months on from having our daughter I can say wholeheartedly it was the best joint decision we have ever made. 

One of the first hurdles with SPL is how hugely logistically complicated it is. I work in HR and am very used to understanding employment legalisation language but even I was quite bewildered. It’s no wonder that employers are not actively advertising the policy if they don’t understand it themselves…or maybe making it complicated is a deliberate barrier to attempt minimal levels of take up…(sorry, very cynical I know…).

Before having a child, I had always read (and assumed) the reasons why SPL take up was so low was because men didn’t feel ‘empowered’ to take it up, that they felt it would unfairly impact their career or they simply weren’t interested. I am sure many of these reasons are true. However, my personal experience was very different. When we told friends of our plans more often than not the fathers amongst the groups would express regret for not having done the same thing and the mothers asking why I wanted to give up ‘my time off’. 

The inherited prejudices surrounding gender roles became highlighted.

I received a huge number of comments (unfortunately mostly from other women) about whether I felt ‘nervous’ leaving my daughter to be ‘looked after’ (you mean parenting right) by her own father. There were also many questions about if he was ‘doing it right’ which just felt bizarre – aren’t all new parents constantly questioning themselves about ‘doing it right’… I also felt a lot of shame for returning to work ‘so soon’, I definitely felt judged and even when well-meaning colleagues shared their delight at ‘me being back so soon’ it just added to the huge sense of mum guilt I already felt.  

Groups such as Maternity Action have dubbed SPL ‘deeply flawed and chronically failing’ and posed that it needs a total rethink. Clearly looking at the take-up rates it’s a policy that isn’t currently attractive enough. 

Financial circumstances also play a huge role in the decision to take up SPL with the majority of organisations offering enhanced maternity pay but not enhanced pay for shared parental leave you can understand that financially it might not be the preferred option. Here at MullenLowe we have recently enhanced our SPL policy to match our maternity policy and given the evident benefits to both business and new parents, I would strongly encourage other HR departments to do the same.

SPL isn’t without its challenges but it has really paid off both for myself and my family and has really set us up for managing the work/life blend.  When I returned to work I was able to solely focus on work – I wasn’t worried about how my daughter was settling to childcare, I knew she was having loads of fun with her dad and I could focus on getting my confidence back at work which was such a blessing. I firmly believe that in our household there is no ‘default parent’.  Taking SPL set the expectation amongst everyone involved that both of us are parents of equal importance and both of us have careers of equal importance.

Guest Author

Siobhan Brunwin

People Director MullenLowe Group


Siobhan (Shiv) is responsible for all things people, culture and talent across the MullenLowe Group UK. Siobhan has worked within the HR, learning & talent space for the past nine years across a range of different fast paced industries. After a brief stint in financial recruitment, she moved to Groupon which was at the time the fastest growing company in the world, building out their learning & talent development functions across the UK & the EMEA region. Siobhan then moved into the media world, working in a number of different roles at Wavemaker UK including Head of Learning & Development before leaving to set up the people function at m/SIX agency at a time which saw headcount growth of 200% over two years. In 2019 she won Campaign magazine’s first ever ‘Talent Person of the Year’ Award. She believes that fostering a more honest and content working environment where people can bring their ‘whole selves’ to work will help businesses achieve success. Siobhan is a very proud and active member of the Bloom, the women’s network for the communications industry.

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