A recent survey, conducted by My Family Care and the Women’s Business Council, asked employers about take-up of shared parental leave in the UK. It has led to much hand-wringing. The hands of the mainstream press were the first to be wrung: why have only one percent of men taken up shared parental leave? What could have led to such a catastrophic policy failure?
For most men, the answer is of course that they haven’t had a baby in the past year. The majority of employers responding to the survey weren’t able to identify how many of their male employees had become fathers, so the take-up rates were presented as a proportion of all male employees – and widely misinterpreted by the press.
And so the hand-wringing quickly spread to more numerate commentators, who rightly bemoaned this as one of the worst cases of statistical misreporting in living memory. Factual corrections were made to some of the offending articles, but the headlines still pronounce the policy a failure – the proportion of men opting for shared parental leave is “tiny”.
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This begs a question: tiny compared to what? Sure, 1% of men is tiny compared to all men, but that isn’t the relevant comparison. If 1% of men were to die tomorrow from a mysterious plague, tiny would be a rather inappropriate description of events.
A more useful comparison is with the proportion of male employees who have had a baby in the past year. Although this information isn’t readily available, we can make a reasonable estimate. On BBC Radio 4’s More or Less, Tim Harford gives us a back-of-the-envelope figure of around 5% – which seems to be the total number of babies born divided by the total number of male employees. With a larger envelope, we can do a bit better.
Tim’s estimate is probably higher than the real figure, since not all men who have babies are in employment. What’s more, both the likelihood of having a baby and the likelihood of being in employment are related to age. The ONS has data on both [i].
If we mash these numbers together, it looks like around 3.5% of male employees had a baby in 2014. So how does that compare to the results of the survey? Well, although the survey was widely reported as saying that 1% of men took up shared parental leave, these are the only numbers I could find in the report:
A quarter of employers didn’t know what proportion of men had taken shared parental leave – which seems strange in itself. But let’s ignore this group and look in a bit more detail at those employers that did respond. A histogram seems like a more informative way to look at the data.
Of the employers that could provide a figure, more than half said that not a single male employee had taken shared parental leave. This seems a worrying statistic. But we need to remember that there will be random variation between employers, particularly when we are looking at small companies. 15% of the employers surveyed had fewer than 50 employees. If around half of their employees are male, that’s fewer than 25 men per employer. A rough calculation [ii] suggests that, in any given year, more than half of these employers wouldn’t have a single man eligible for shared parental leave. Larger organisations are more likely to have new fathers in their workforce, but there will be a few that don’t.
Even if take-up were 100% among new fathers, we would expect around 10% of the employers surveyed to report that no male employees took shared parental leave. If the take-up rate were 10%, we’d expect over 45% of employers to return a zero.
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So what should we make of these results? Overall, it is hard to defend the negative tone of the coverage of this survey. Clearly there are a lot of fathers not taking shared parental leave, but a decent number are. For a newly introduced policy, this could be considered a modest success.
But even accounting for random variation, the number of employers reporting no men taking shared parental leave seems high. On the other hand, a non-negligible number report quite high rates. This suggests systematic differences between organisations – perhaps some companies or professions are more accepting of fathers taking time off than others.
That said, what we should really conclude from this exercise is that we need better data. The published analysis of the survey is inadequate, but I suspect there is richer data lying behind it. My Family Care and the Women’s Business Council should release this data publicly so that others can analyse the impact of the policy in more detail. And if the government is serious about implementing policies to improve gender equality in the workplace – and the home – then it should monitor the impact of these policies properly, rather than leaving it to third parties to conduct flawed surveys.
[i] The data I’ve used on employment rates is for both sexes. I’m sure the ONS has the data for men only, but I simply cannot spend any more time searching for data on their atrocious website. By using data for both sexes I’ve implicitly assumed that the age profiles of the male and female workforces are the same. In reality, I guess the female workforce might be younger (with some women in their 30s and 40s dropping out of work to raise a family). If so, my estimate for the proportion of men in the workforce having babies will be a bit too high.
[ii] In case you’re interested, I’ve modelled this as the sum of a set of binomial distributions with p=0.035 and n=the size of the employers who responded to the survey.
Via @wonkypolicywonk, it seems that the survey *did* actually collect some data on the proportion of new fathers who took up shared parental leave. As well as asking employers, they also spoke to “over 1000” employees and found out that, of male employees that had a baby in the past year, around a third took up shared parental leave.
This is hidden away at the back of the report, which instead takes its headline figures from a survey of employers. There is some justification for this. The survey of employees was very small: 1000 employees would probably equate to around 18 new fathers, of whom six have taken up shared parental leave. This is not a big enough sample to base any conclusions on, but you would think that these results might have led the researchers to consider whether it was misleading to say that “the overall take-up of SPL is still very low, i.e. less than 1% of men have engaged”.
Meanwhile, the sample of 200 employers contained some large organisations, with a total workforce (by my estimate) of over 200,000. We would expect this to include more than 3,500 new fathers, so this sample could the basis of some better analysis. It is quite plausible that analysis might draw a similar conclusion to the small sample of parents: a take-up rate of around a third among new fathers is entirely consistent with 1% take-up among all male employees, provided our estimate that 3.5% of male employees become fathers each year is about right.
But this analysis hasn’t been done, and it seems unlikely that it will be unless My Family Care and the Women’s Business Council release the survey data for others to analyse.