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News article

Are universities failing to support new parents?

Published: 28 October 2021

  •   Featured
  •   Research
A baby's dummy on a computer keyboard

Shared parental leave was introduced in the UK six years ago, and means a couple could share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay between them. Its aim was to transform gender equality and make life easier for families. A new study of university staff in the UK suggests that it has done little to improve the situation.   

Academics from York St John University approached 125 universities in the UK with Freedom of Information requests to collect 5 years’ worth of data. 81 institutions responded.  

Senior Lecturer in Law at York St John University, Dr Ernestine Gheyoh Ndzi explained the decision to focus on Higher Education Institutions (HEIs): “We decided to look at parental support in HE workplaces as it’s a sector with a good gender balance of employees and one which has good career options for women. Universities also regularly produce research that influences policy.   

“A well-balanced, family friendly right works for the employer and the staff. Gender equality is crucial and UK HEIs should be leading the way.”  

Researchers also looked at workplace support for breastfeeding women and conducted interviews with new mothers about their experiences.   

Their main findings were:   

  • Shared parental leave has an impact on breastfeeding and vice versa 
  • Institutions are not adequately supporting women wanting to take shared parental leave or continue breastfeeding on return to work 
  • University College London has the highest number of breastfeeding rooms 
  • University of Cambridge has the highest number of parents taking shared parental leave in the past 5 academic years.  

Anjali Raj, Lecturer in Healthcare at York St John University London said: "Supporting breastfeeding women at work is multifaceted. Providing women with rest breaks is only 10% of the whole. If we want to be family friendly employers, we need to work to bridge the gap and act on the needs of our women."  

Following on from the study, the researchers are working with HE institutions on how to improve the support offered to new parents. They are running a workshop in February with Athena Swan Advance HE and are currently working closely with three universities, including York St John.  

Joanne Thompson, Head of HR at York St John University said: “We strongly advocate for the right to shared parental leave to allow parents to balance the demands of taking time out of work to care for children.  Whilst we have seen some requests for SPL since it was introduced there is more that we can do to raise awareness, particularly for partners employed by the University. 

"We will continue to go above and beyond the statutory minimum to ensure parents feel able to access the range of financial support on offer. We are working together to improve our current breastfeeding facilities on campus and we will incorporate our explicit actions within the University’s Athena SWAN submission. 

"The work of our female staff is hugely valued and we want to empower them to make informed choices for their maternity leave wherever we can.” 

If you are interested in arranging a free workshop on supporting parents at your institution, please contact Ernestine Gheyoh Ndzi 

Read more about the study and watch a webinar on key findings  

Read more from Ernestine on Shared Parental Leave  

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