How I know Shared Parental Leave works

In our line of work as investors, we’re used to searching for balance. Beyond developing relationships with founders and supporting them as they build future-shaping businesses, I sit on the boards of a number of Octopus Ventures’ portfolio companies. When I can find the time, I like to take my bike out, or work on my golf handicap. Or, at least, I used to.

In October last year, my wife and I introduced one more trick to my balancing act, as we welcomed our daughter, Evie, to the world. I’m happy and humbled to report that, golf handicap aside, things are going very well. We’ve watched her start to make sense of the world; find (and use!) her voice; smile, grip and grow (increasingly) mobile. She’s recently added a new response to her repertoire – clapping.  In fact, I’m lucky to say that I’ve seen more of these milestones than many fathers – certainly when compared to the generations of professional dads before me.

From February to April this year, I was able to take a step back from work and fully immerse myself in the new world of fatherhood. My daughter aged from four to six months, and I was right there beside her, watching new developments happen day-by-day. We even travelled around Australia visiting my wife’s family. Experiences I’ll cherish forever – alongside an intimacy with the new person in our life that would have taken more than just evenings and weekends to build. In fact, the time I took equates to an additional 30 weekends had I been in full time work.

I’m not trying to show off. There is a point to all this. Put simply, none of these experiences would have been possible if it wasn’t for the fact that Octopus Ventures, as part of Octopus Investments, truly gets the importance of family time and fully supports the UK’s Shared Parental Leave legislation. I was among the lucky number of fathers who got to enjoy the benefits, but research indicates that, nationally, uptake remains far too low. In this blog, I want to unpack the legislation, and explore why it’s important – not just to new fathers like me, but as a lever for improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), expanding opportunities and, ultimately, for shattering the glass ceiling.

Shared Parental Leave

Introduced in 2015, Shared Parental Leave allows UK parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave, and up to 37 weeks of pay, after the birth or adoption of their child. The legislation was designed to offer families more flexibility over their childcare arrangements. It’s not just beneficial for fathers who enjoy more time to bond with their kids –  it’s a means of sharing parenting responsibilities between both parents and helping to mitigate some of the impact on one parent’s career.

Parental leave at Octopus

As a registered B-Corp, Octopus isn’t only committed to making the world a better place through its investments and the businesses it supports. It’s also committed to building a better culture internally, to reflect the positive change we think is so important in society at large.

In its support of the government’s legislation, Octopus offers up to 50 weeks of leave shared between staff and their partners, with up to six months fully paid. This time can be taken separately or together. Holiday accrues as normal, while pre-agreed ‘keeping in touch’ (or KIT) days allow for periodic, paid check-ins.

One of the reasons Shared Parental Leave hasn’t seen the adoption it deserves nationwide is economic: the government offers £172 per week in payment, which, for many families, is just too little. Octopus effectively tops this up to 100% for six months.  Many of my colleagues have felt the benefits

Why it matters

As I’ve written, Shared Parental Leave has been transformative for my new family. But there are further benefits to businesses that shouldn’t be overlooked.  While I was away, my absence needed to be covered, which presented an opportunity for other members of the Octopus Ventures team to step up, taking my place on various boards. For my colleagues, this meant real career growth. 

Shared Parental Leave also takes some of the expectation of care away from mothers, offering true progression away from the outdated assumption that they be the primary caregiver and helping build more equitable partnerships at home.

Positive strides are being taken, but the gender pay gap is still real. Women are still underrepresented in the c-suite and senior management positions. Encouraging fathers to take time to share the joys (and tribulations!) of early parenthood is an essential step if we’re ever going to close the gap.

And for me, personally? Well, the truth is, coming back to work I felt a little nervous. After three months away, would my team have any use for me? Had I left portfolio companies in the lurch or missed critical decision points? There is, of course, a temptation to think of oneself as indispensable but it’s a testament to the ingenuity of colleagues that this is almost never the case. I was also worried about the family I’d taken time off to dedicate myself to. My daughter and I had become used to spending all our time together. What would it be like returning to my usual, full-time hours?

It’s still early days, but the answer seems to be that everything is fine. My daughter and I have found a new routine, and I’m always there for bedtime. At work, meanwhile, I’ve returned from leave with a renewed sense of the precious commodity that is time. Having a child puts everything into perspective. Professionally, that means I’m more clear-eyed about priorities than ever and focussed on working smarter, not harder. But it has left me more aware of the need for meaningful workplace support for those taking a long leave of absence.

Octopus offers that. Knowing that I work for an organisation that has my back and recognises the importance of fatherhood in the early stages means something. An inclusive environment is a positive one, and in the new age of portfolio careers and fierce competition over top talent, goes a long way towards keeping employees from jumping ship – particularly critical in venture capital, where partnerships with founders and their businesses can last years. I appreciate the flexibility that allows me to leave work at 5pm (more or less) every day to be home for bath time and accepts that I’ll log back on later – or put the time in earlier – according to that day’s demands. And that appreciation feeds back into the work I do.

Closing thoughts

My overwhelmingly positive experience with Shared Parental Leave has left me convinced that more fathers and families should be considering it as an option. It’s a value-add that extends beyond the family unit to touch colleagues and a business itself. But there are obstacles that need to be overcome if it’s really going to realise its full potential.

Companies need to embrace and support Shared Parental Leave from a DE&I perspective. I think there are four ways this can happen.

  1. Raise awareness. Research shows that less than half of eligible couples have heard of Shared Parental Leave, and less than 10% claim to know a lot about it. By highlighting it in conversations around parental leave and providing clear information to expectant employees and their partners, businesses can do a lot to raise awareness.
  2. Demystify the jargon. There’s no question that the legislation surrounding Shared Parental Leave is complicated. Policy needs to be clearly written out, clearly communicated and fully demystified if more people and businesses are going to take advantage of it.
  3. Review pay policies. Statutory pay is not enough, and clearly a factor in the low uptake of Shared Parental Leave. Before more families use it, businesses need to enhance the payment to make it a viable option for employees.
  4. Leadership example. While parental leave is well on the way to being fully destigmatised, an outdated understanding of it can still be found in people’s responses. Rather than hear ‘It’s great you’re doing that!’ we need to arrive at a point where people’s first response is, ‘Naturally.’ Senior stakeholders have a major part to play in fully normalising Shared Parental Leave. The higher the profile – the better. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, took two months of paternity leave for each of his children. More high-powered parents need to follow his lead not only by taking it but also by authentically encouraging it.

Government and business need to work together to actively promote Shared Parental Leave, but it falls to businesses and the individuals working there to build a culture where employees feel supported in taking it up.

Doing so means taking a step further down a path to a more equitable future, where there is a choice to share parental leave equally, and where colleagues are given an opportunity to shine.

I’d recommend it to anyone, and I’d urge businesses to follow Octopus’s lead and reap the benefits it offers. In truth, when it comes to family and work, my balancing metaphor breaks down. It’s not about weighing the two against each other: it’s about integrating them in a way that brings out the best in us – as professionals and as parents.

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