Parental leave: Why is the uptake so low?

Lack of understanding of employee rights, loss of income and the stigma around men taking time out are reasons many parents fail to avail of what is a statutory entitlement

Men are less likely than women to take paternity leave. Photograph: iStock

When drinks giant Diageo announced plans to introduce 26 weeks fully paid paternity leave earlier this year, it was met with envy by parents everywhere – and much wondering if there were any jobs going!

But while, for now, these entitlements relate only to Diageo employees, all parents of children up to the age of 12 stand to benefit from recently announced increased parental leave entitlements. This leave is unpaid, but in a society that is time-poor, does it offer the answer to striking that perfect parental work-life balance?

Aine Crilly, HR consultant at The HR Elephant, explains “the new Bill means unpaid parental leave has increased from 18 weeks to 26 weeks with the qualifying child’s age also changing from eight to 12”. In spite of the fact that parental leave is a statutory entitlement, “general uptake is comparatively low”.

“In the public sector, there is a higher uptake for parental leave in comparison to the private sector,” she explains, “often due to a lack of understanding of employee rights”.


“An eligible person can’t be refused parental leave, however, the employer does have the right to postpone the leave for up to six months. This in turn can only be done if there is a reasonable purpose to do so.”

Crilly says women are one third more likely than men to take parental leave.

“This is ultimately the case due to stigma still existing around the idea of men taking parental leave and being away from their traditional place of work. Additionally, men are often seen as the ‘bread-winner’ due to discrepancies in equality of pay. It is often economic sense for those making less of an income to take parental leave.”

Simon Coulter, father-of-two and software engineer, was delighted to hear of the parental leave extension, which he hopes will encourage "healthier work norms". Taking parental leave, he now works a four-day week, something he says is "a good step closer to having an ideal work-life balance".

“I think it takes time to adjust to it and trying to get work done in four days. Not taking it home with me is a challenge as the rest of my team don’t stop on Fridays.”

Coulter’s manager is very supportive and although his availing of parental leave has been met “with lots of surprise”, there has been no “overtly negative reactions”. He believes, however, this “is more luck than the norm”.

‘Not socially acceptable’

“Unpaid leave is always tough. I think this is an area where some support would encourage more people to take it,” Coulter says, adding he believes the low uptake among men is because “it’s not socially acceptable or they think it’ll mean they will be passed over for a promotion or worse”.

New father David Macauley, operations supervisor at Shred-it, availed of statutory paternity leave earlier this year following his daughter's birth. It not only enabled him to support his partner as she recovered from an emergency C-section, it also allowed him enjoy what he describes as "the most magical part of my life".

However, at present, availing of parental leave is not on the agenda. “I wouldn’t be in a position to take it financially as I earn significantly more than my partner,” Macauley explains, adding that if their income situation was reversed it might be an option.

“I don’t believe many men are aware of this [parental leave] and again I imagine it would all be down to what they could afford as a family.”

Civil servant and mother-of-two Colette Byrne says she welcomes "the new extension to the parental leave allowance", but adds, "I would have thought that the Bill would have been for children up to the age of 13, taking into consideration the additional free pre-school year which means most children will be 13 leaving primary school.

“Since being in the position to avail of taking parental leave, I no longer send the children to a childminder. I collect them four days a week from school,” and “homework is finished by 4.30”.

“The Civil Service prides itself in the area of work-life balance and so I am lucky to have had no issue in taking parental leave.”

But what about private businesses?

“My first reaction to the increase in parental leave entitlements was negative,” says Suzanne Kelly O’Leary, mum-of-four and proprietor of O’Leary Travel. “I thought, ‘another cost and challenge for our family business’.

“However, on reflection, the reality in our company with a female workforce is we have to be family friendly or we will not keep staff. There is reasonable flexibility within the parental leave legislation to allow the staff member and employer work out when to take leave to avoid peak periods.

“Overall, I think it’s a good decision for society and for families,” Kelly O’Leary adds.

Parental Leave: the facts

  • Employees who have parental responsibilities for a child up to the age of eight are entitled to take 18 weeks unpaid leave per child. (Phased increased entitlements are due to begin in September 2019.)
  • Parents of children with disabilities can avail of their parental leave entitlement up until the child turns 16.
  • Both parents have an equal, separate entitlement to parental leave.
  • Availing of parental leave does not affect other employment rights you have, including your annual leave and public holiday entitlements, which continue to accumulate.
  • Parental leave must be used to take care of the child concerned. If it is used for another purpose, the employer is entitled to cancel the leave.