Not everyone at Oxford was ready for my three months as a full-time dad

Alex Holmes was surprised by the reaction of some of his colleagues when he took shared parental leave

June 6, 2017
Father with baby
Source: Getty

I had an epiphany recently; not a full-on “burning bush” moment, perhaps, but a small insight into life on the other side of the “gender divide”.

My wife and I recently had a baby (that’s not the insight, I’m very aware of the nature of cause and effect, thanks), and we decided to take advantage of the flexibility that the 2015 legislation provided. After an initial period, we’d split childcare duties, with me taking three months off and mum returning to work. So far, so good.

What was less straightforward were the reactions. Even though I’d arranged things so that I’d take a full complement of “keeping-in-touch” days to come into the office once a week and, like most people in our 21st-century “always-on” society, would be constantly available via email and phone, the provision of “shared parental leave” (the system that replaced maternity leave allowing parents to share the time off) is still only just-charted territory for an institution at once as progressive, and yet as wedded to tradition, as the University of Oxford.

And there was a definite split between those who could see the upside of progress (thankfully, the majority) and those concerned about the perceived negatives.

Aside from the genially begrudging “I wish I’d been able to take three months off back in my day” comments (FYI, as countless generations of mothers will attest, it’s definitely not three months “off”; I was more shattered by a day of formula, nappies and endless “tummy-time” than I’ve ever been after a day of meetings and budget reviews), the more nonplussed men tended to have practical concerns: “Who’s going to fix my grant applications/HR crisis/leaky roof” while I was off doing what seemed to still be seen in some quarters as “women’s work”?

I got a very clear sense of how it must have felt for the years-worth of female postdocs and research assistants, whose maternity plans have now faded with age, as they talked to their academic supervisors: “Well, yes, that’s lovely, congratulations, but who’s going to run the real-time PCR samples while you’re off? I’ve got a programme grant to deliver on, and four-star REF-able papers don’t write themselves."

That wasn’t the hugest revelation, however; while a certain amount of attitudinal inertia was perhaps to be expected from the pale, male and stale contingent, what was surprising was that some of the more confounded seemed to be women.

While thankfully receding further into the minority with each passing season, the “we didn’t have family-friendly policies in my day, we had to claw our way to the top on merit while balancing baby on one hip and h-index on the other” attitude is not, it seems, entirely defeated just yet. Perhaps more unexpected to me (although not, it turns out, to my wife) were the occasional barbed “Ooh, gosh, SHE’s gone back to work REALLY early” judgements from the under thirties, who presumably hadn’t considered that actually, yes, we’d love for mum to be able to stay at home until Baby H is in proper trousers but frankly the mortgage, the gas bill and the increased Universities Superannuation Scheme pension contributions all had a different opinion.

And there’s the rub. I’ll admit that – aside from wanting to spend some quality time with Baby H – there were financial considerations at work, too. Mum’s company didn’t offer as good a maternity package as my university appointment and, by splitting it the way that we did, we were able to eke out six months’ joint full pay rather than just three. Some of those very stale colleagues "got" that much more. This wasn’t some hippy, new-age getting-in-touch-with-my-feminine-side thing, this was business, economics, pure and simple. That made sense.

But I found it equally nonsensical that mum’s company – at the cutting edge of science and medicine – would, in the age of work-life balance and Athena SWAN, have a maternity package that actively disadvantaged new mothers and made it more difficult for them to take time off with their children. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised; when the Times Higher Education 2017 higher education pay survey still shows a 10.5 per cent gap between male and female academic salaries (set against a real-terms average salary drop of 2.8 per cent since 2010-11), are we really as progressive as we’d like to think?

Legislation-driven family-friendly policies and subsidised nursery places are all well and good but if, when you return to work, you’re still earning £5,000 less than your male counterparts, are we really flying the equality flag quite as highly as we should be?

In practice, my team maintained business-as-usual more than admirably while I got to grips with Music Club and That’s Not My Bunny, gaining experience in areas that they wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to deal with; neither mum nor I was away long enough to really lose track of what was going on in our jobs, and the university didn’t have me away long enough to really miss me.

Oh, and Baby H got to spend those first few months with both parents instead of briefly seeing dad for an hour in the evening, traffic and meetings permitting. A win for all parties then; if only the same could be said for the rest of it.

Alex Holmes is head of administration and finance in the department of paediatrics at the University of Oxford.

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