Paternity leave in finance: ‘The more men do it, the less of a big deal it becomes’

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Shortly before his second stint of extended parental leave, City lawyer Adam was left embarrassed in front of clients when a senior partner asked why he was taking time off instead of his wife.

After he returned, the sexist comments continued, along the lines of: “Your job is to be here . . . the wife should be bringing up the kids”, he says.

Adam’s law firm offers six months of shared parental leave at full pay. It asked him to become part of an internal marketing push to raise awareness of the benefit. But the attitudes he encountered from colleagues left him feeling the firm did not really expect men to take the leave at all.

Offering extended paid leave for new fathers is becoming increasingly common among Wall Street and City firms as they seek to close the gender pay gap, reduce potential discrimination against women when it comes to hiring and promotion, and attract and retain staff. Many are opting for gender neutral policies that offer a minimum amount of leave for all parents with an extra allowance following pregnancy.

Yet there can be a disconnect between policy and reality, as employers and staff grapple with the cultural and practical challenges of making more equal parental benefits work. Some fathers have encountered similar biases to those their female partners are hoping to escape.

In the US, Barclays recently followed Morgan Stanley and Bank of America to provide at least 16 weeks of leave to all new parents. Goldman Sachs offers at least 20 weeks. The offers are generous for a country that has the “worst family-leave policies on Earth”, according to Boston College management professor Brad Harrington. The US has no mandatory paid parental leave, with companies free to set their own benefits. Overall, only 13 per cent of private sector workers are employed at workplaces that offer paid paternity leave to all male employees.

Elsewhere, fathers’ ability to take time off is enshrined in law. In the UK, a 2015 shared parental leave policy gives mothers and fathers the right to share up to 50 weeks of leave after the birth or adoption of their child. But only about 2 per cent of parents use this scheme for fathers, mostly because they cannot afford to reduce their income to statutory pay levels.

More City institutions, including law firms Allen & Overy and Linklaters and insurer Aviva, are stepping in with policies offering better benefits. Ian Dinwiddy, a coach and founder of Inspiring Dads which supports fathers in the workplace, observes a domino effect, as more companies overcome worries about “cost [and having] to cover the leave”, forcing others to compete.

Adam* said the leave helped him forge a strong connection with his children and put him on an equal parenting footing. “The kids are as comfortable with me as they are with my wife. They don’t care if it’s me or my wife if they are upset and need comfort.”

But it came at a cost. He believes his absence was seen as a sign he was no longer committed to work. “If I had not taken extended leave, I’d expect to be a partner. There are people significantly more junior than me that have been promoted. It’s not going to happen this year, I doubt it will happen next year.”

Some of his peers say the negative attitudes will “die out when the dinosaurs leave”, but Adam has encountered resistance from younger partners too. “It’s not just men who’ve made these comments, it’s also some of the senior females. Their attitude is, ‘We had to deal with it, so you have to too.’”

Jasmine Kelland, lecturer in human resource management at the University of Plymouth, says “social mistreatment” apportioned to fathers taking an active role in caregiving can be harsh.

“If they take parental leave, they may face mockery, [and are] viewed suspiciously. It is often viewed as being work shy. They say all these things to working dads but wouldn’t dream of saying it to working mums.”

Even when policies are equal, some HR managers and team leaders do not offer the same support to fathers. “Mums will have a return-to-work conversation,” adds Kelland. “Lots of managers don’t have that conversation with dads.”

Nonetheless, these are early days for extended paternity leave — and many fathers and experts observe positive shifts in attitudes. A 2019 study by Boston College of four companies offering paid parental leave found that 62 per cent took their full entitlement. “Men eligible for eight weeks of leave took an average of 7.2 weeks (90 per cent), while men eligible for 16 weeks took 12.8 weeks on average (80 per cent)” the report says.

One London-based investment director says he took one month shortly after shared parental leave was introduced but now members of his team are taking longer. Linklaters says 50 per cent of lawyers and 80 per cent of business team employees in the UK took their full paternity leave entitlement in the year to June — and no one took less than three weeks. Aviva says 99 per cent of eligible fathers are using the benefit, taking an average of 23 weeks. Almost half of those taking parental leave at the insurer are men.

Dinwiddy says ringfenced leave — which is not shared between a couple — encourages fathers to take it. “Because [shared leave] is a choice — men have to opt in and that comes with fear of being seen as uncommitted.” There is also safety in numbers, he says. “If men think other men are going to take it, they will too.”

Louisa Symington-Mills, founder of WorkLife Central, which offers digital content for working parents, says extended leave is helping to foster an “understanding in workplaces that parenting responsibilities will be shared more equally”.

For Ronak Patel, equities sales trader at Morgan Stanley, who took leave after the birth of his son in March 2022, the experience has been “really positive”. “We’re trying to encourage a more diverse workforce at Morgan Stanley and on the trading floor. The more men that do it, the less of a big deal it becomes,” he says.

Patel took 16 consecutive weeks. “We made sure we got ahead of it, so we could do proper handovers with clients. I had regular check-ins, once a month, to find out what was happening with the company, the team.” Returning “wasn’t a shock”, he adds. 

Rob Colvin in suit and blue tie rests against a boardroom table in front of a large window with a a view of the Gherkin (Swiss Re) building
Rob Colvin from Freshfields law firm, who has taken two stints of paternity leave, says he found clients very supportive © Charlie Bibby/FT

An encouraging line manager is crucial. Jake*, who works in a support function at a bank, says extended leave had no impact on his job: “My boss was super-supportive, he’s got two young children himself. I got my biggest pay rise ever.”

Nic Blumsky-Gibbs, who took leave from his role as vice-president of financial and strategic investors group at Goldman Sachs, says being put in touch with others who had taken time off work offered reassurance. 

Resistance to fathers taking leave may be due to the resources available for cover. If team members are expected to pick up more work, it can fuel resentment. But providing organised cover can be a positive experience, for example for junior staff to step up. Some companies offer external placements. PwC’s Flexible Careers Network, for example, has a pool of candidates available for short stints.

Rob Colvin, senior associate in Freshfields’ dispute resolution group, who took two stints of leave when his children were born, believes hostile attitudes from employers are short-termist. “You want to retain your talent . . . you can plan for [the birth of a child].” 

It might be the voice inside your head that is the obstacle, Colvin says. “I thought clients would be let down, but actually they’ve been supportive because lo and behold they’re also parents.”

But job losses in the banking sector make it a “tough environment . . . to feel comfortable taking any extended leave”, warns Patrick Curtis, founder and CEO of Wall St Oasis, an online community for finance employees.

In roles that demand long hours servicing clients, “it is understood that if you take too much time off, you could get replaced,” he says, though this is “less of a concern if you are more senior and . . . generate revenue directly for the firm”.

Bonuses are another consideration. In jobs where a high proportion of remuneration is performance-related, fear of losing out may affect prospective fathers’ decisions to take extended leave. As one employee at an investment firm says, when employers “talk about full pay they are talking about salary — it’s not normally the case that the bonus part of pay is covered”.

Fathers do recognise that these are issues — and biases — faced by generations of working mothers. As one trader puts it: “Men are having to ask themselves the same questions about the impact on promotion and compensation.” The experience can make them more committed to an equal workforce.

For Colvin, the leave gave him a chance to reflect on his ambitions. “It’s very much harder than being at work [but] it gives you an amazing perspective on work, it gives you a chance to recalibrate what you want to do with your career.”

Despite his frustrations, Adam does not regret his decision to take leave. After all, he says, the benefits of spending time with his family outweigh “another billable hour”.

* Names have been changed

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