Family-friendly policies are not just for mum and dad
By Jo Faragher on 11 November 2021
When it was revealed that a tenth of employers had not complied with gender pay gap reporting this year – and for those that did the hourly pay gap rose to more than 10% – this prompted questions on why there was no real progress in improving women’s equality at work. For many employers, family-friendly policies such as paid maternity leave or support with childcare bills forms part of how they’re trying to make the workplace more equitable for working mothers and reduce that gap.
But while it’s crucial that organisations do all they can to remove the so-called “motherhood penalty”, there’s a risk that they’re focusing on a very traditional idea of family. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that in 2019, there were 212,000 same-sex families in the UK, having increased by 40.0% since 2015. ONS figures also show that lone parent families accounted for 14.7% of all families in 2020. Have organisations’ family-friendly policies and benefits evolved to keep up with these shifts in demographics? Simon Kelleher, head of policy at Working Families, says there is an ever-wider range of set-ups employers need to consider: “Family-friendly policies can cover kinship carers, adopted families, same sex parents, single parents, families with disabled children: we know that good employers will want to understand the circumstances of their employees in order to create the conditions for them to do their best work.”
The pandemic blurred the lines between family and work life, allowing many of us an unprecedented view into our colleagues’ homes and personal lives – something that drove many organisations to think about how inclusive their parental and other family policies are. The past few months alone have seen a huge increase in employers announcing policies around miscarriage leave and fertility. But this hasn’t always been so widespread. In 2017, reward consultancy Mercer looked at benefits offered to LGBT+ employees around the world and found that only half of organisations provided family-friendly benefits to LGBT+ employees. Companies in the US were more likely to offer support to cover fertility treatment, surrogacy and adoption than the UK, although UK employers have picked up their game in recent years.
So why is it important to focus on ‘non-traditional’ family set ups from an inclusion perspective? “Regardless of an employee’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or how they choose to grow their family, there’s a definite and rising need to talk about alternative parenthood in the workplace,” says Dr Mridula Pore, CEO of healthcare company Peppy. “Whether or not staff are part of the LGBT+ community, many are deciding to start a non-traditional fertility journey and so it’s becoming an increasingly important issue.” She adds that considering these benefits is not only about supporting those directly affected, but the wider workforce, too. “The reality is, whether it’s a friend, a colleague, line manager or even a director, these issues can have repercussions across the workforce more broadly in terms of engagement and productivity,” she adds. The example of lesbian couple Megan and Whitney Bacon-Evans, who have launched a case against an NHS Trust claiming that it discriminates against same-sex couples, shows how varied different parts of the country can be in terms of fertility services, with policies often focused on heterosexual couples.
Being aware of this context and the legal framework surrounding different types of parenthood means there are areas where employers can go above and beyond employees’ basic legal entitlements. Couples using a surrogate have the right to take unpaid leave to attend two antenatal appointments with the birth mother, and intended parents will need to apply for a parental order or adopt the child. One of the parents (the primary adopter) will be entitled to take adoption leave and receive statutory adoption pay – but an organisation could choose to extend this to both parents, or alternatively offer them shared parental leave. Similarly, there is no statutory right to time off work for fertility treatment, but an employer should treat IVF appointments as they would any other medical appointment. “Employers can really make a difference by supporting under-served groups,” adds Dr Pore. “It makes sense to be the kind of company that offers support and flexibility as finding an employer who will support their personal plans is increasingly becoming a priority for staff.”
Kelleher at Working Families believes it is important to get the wording right when reviewing or creating new policies to be inclusive of all parents. “It’s particularly important to use inclusive language around flexible working, and parental leave policies. We know that fathers and partners increasingly want to play a more active role in their child’s upbringing. Employers’ policies need to keep step with that if they are to attract the best talent to their teams,” he adds.
Companies that have equalised family-friendly benefits for all parents include John Lewis Partnership, which offers 26 weeks’ paid leave regardless of how someone became a parent (so includes both partners in a couple). When it introduced additional paid leave for employees who suffer pregnancy loss or who are undergoing fertility treatments or consultations, online bank Monzo ensured the policy applied to partners and surrogate mothers in recognition of the fact that pregnancy loss does not only affect women or heterosexual partners.
Donisha Diagne, chief people officer at US company FOLX, which specialises in healthcare for the LGBTQIA+ community, points out that while there may be legal protections against discrimination for trans and gay employees, that doesn’t mean it’s a level playing field in terms of benefits. “Many members of the community face systemic barriers due to the lack of culturally competent care, under-employment resulting in reduced health coverage and/or corporate health and welfare programs not designed to meet the specific needs of individuals who represent a variety of identities,” she explains.
Inclusive family policies and benefits can go some way to remedying this, she adds: “Companies with positive family friendly policies are uniquely positioned to drive the advancement of equitable healthcare for the LGBTQIA+ community by ensuring the policies and practices are inclusive. This includes examining language, building awareness and ensuring that the application of the positive family friendly family policies incorporate the different orientation and identities of individuals and couples within the community.”
This is not a case of ticking a box and it’s done, however. It’s crucial to stay in communication with employee networks and beneficiaries of the policies to keep up with what might be useful to them and to ensure the provision stays relevant. Dr Pore concludes: “Even when a company has a policy in place, they should still consider what it feels like to show up to work. If an individual feels alienated or doesn’t feel safe talking to their employer, then the policies are not worth the paper they’re written on.”
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