Mary Ann Sieghart: O father, where art thou?

8th December, 2010. How often have you asked a prospective father, ‘So what are you going to do after the baby is born?’

Of all the things Ed Miliband has done – or hasn’t done – since he became leader, the best was to spend two weeks on paternity leave. I was astonished that crusty hacks and politicians complained about this. For if there’s one social change that makes men, women and children happier, as well as helping to keep families together, it’s fathers spending more time with their children.

 Last week, the Fatherhood Institute published research which tried to measure the extent of equal parenting in 21 rich countries. It’s an important subject, as all the evidence shows that today’s fathers want to be more active and that their children behave better, achieve more and have greater chances in life if their dad is properly involved in their care.

 More equality at home also leads to more equality at work. Women can’t hope to keep up with their male colleagues if they’re also bearing most of the burden of looking after children, stocking the fridge and cleaning the house. Yet still there’s an assumption that when a couple have a child, it will be the mother who lowers her ambitions or leaves work altogether. How often have you asked a prospective father: “So what are you going to do after the baby is born?”

 I left university with a whole cohort of talented and ambitious girlfriends. It was the 1980s, and we all assumed that we were equal to men and would flourish in the world of work. In our 20s, my friends became successful bankers, lawyers and journalists. But it was desperately disappointing to watch them, one by one, drop away as they had children. Now only a handful still work full-time and some of the brightest and best gave up altogether, unable to combine the demands of their jobs and their families. Their husbands, meanwhile, have sailed on regardless.

 Sure, the fathers are more involved with their children than our fathers were. That wouldn’t be hard. But the prevailing assumption in most couples is still that he will be the main breadwinner, while she takes day-to-day responsibility for the family. Very few fathers have changed down a gear at work so they can share the childcare equally.

 In a parallel universe, I’m sure some of them would love to. But the brutal fact is that the pay gap between men and women is wider here than in most other rich countries. By the time a woman gets pregnant, she will be earning, on average, 21 per cent less than her partner. (In Belgium, the gap is just 9 per cent.) So it makes more sense for her to step off the career ladder than him.

 There is also the question of how much time each of them can take off work after the baby is born. The current British system seems designed to produce male breadwinners and stay-at-home mothers. Fathers get two weeks’ paternity leave straight after the birth, but at such a low rate (less than the minimum wage) that it equates to just two days’ average earnings. Mothers can take up to a year, and it is much better paid. The difference between the two entitlements makes it much likelier that she will either stop work or scale down, while he carries on as before.

 It doesn’t have to be like this. Germany used to have a pretty conservative, mother-centred system of leave, but now mothers and fathers get a “sharing bonus” if he takes at least two months’ parental leave. They can take leave together or separately, full-time over a year, or part-time for longer.

 Iceland too has an enlightened system where the father gets three months, so does the mother, and there’s a further three months which either or both can take. It can be in one block or several, full-time or part-time, until the child is three. As a result, there’s been a big increase in the proportion of men taking parental leave, a rise in the proportion of women returning to work and a narrowing of the pay gap.

 Things may improve here too. The last Labour government legislated for additional paternity leave to be brought in next April. After some havering, the Coalition has agreed to honour it. From next year, fathers will be able to take up to 26 weeks’ leave after the mother has gone back to work and before the child is one. And the Government says it will consult on a new system of flexible parental leave.

 Studies show that if men take parental leave when their children are small, their families are more likely to stay together. Fathers also claim to be happier. In cohabiting couples, there’s even a correlation between the number of nappies a father changes and the stability of the relationships. There’s also a link between men taking leave and their partners’ earnings. Swedish research found that for every extra month taken by the father, the mother’s annual income rose by 7 per cent.

 That’s all very well for the first year of a child’s life, though. What about the next 17? In Britain, they’re still very much the mother’s responsibility. Among parents of children under 15, 55 per cent of British mothers work less than 30 hours a week, compared with just 4.3 per cent of fathers. This is a huge disparity, and I bet that buried in those figures are millions of men who would rather like to work less and stay at home more, and women who would like to do the opposite.

 For this to happen, though, several things need to change. The pay gap has to narrow, and the Government’s announcement on Friday that employers won’t be obliged to publish the difference between what they pay women and men is a regressive step. But its commitment to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees is encouraging. Businesses hated the idea of a right to ask for more flexible hours when it was first introduced. Now even the CBI supports an extension of it so that parents can share care more equally.

 This is great news, but it will only make a difference if employers change the way they think. Bosses have to understand that a mother or father who wants working hours that are more compatible with family life is not showing a lack of commitment. These employees shouldn’t be punished by being sidelined or denied promotion. More flexible working when children are young should just be seen as the norm for parents of either sex.

 Childcare is the other problem in Britain. Women already have to earn an exorbitant sum before their income after tax covers the cost of a nursery place, nanny or childminder. Subsidised childcare and after-school clubs have enabled many mothers to go back to work, contribute to the economy and pay taxes. It would be disastrous for them – and the economy – if these were to vanish in the cuts, and they had to leave their jobs.

 Already the Fatherhood Institute study finds that the UK is 18th out of 21 comparable countries in how equal its parents are. Not all fathers want to spend more time at home and not all mothers want to work more. But it’s time that parents here were given the chance to order their lives the way they want to. This Government, headed by two men with small children of their own, has said it wants Britain to be the most family-friendly country in Europe. It still has a very long way to go.