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'IT'S NOT SHARED, AND IT'S NOT EQUAL': MEET THE MAN CAMPAIGNING FOR PATERNITY RIGHTS

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Lisa Williams speaks to Tom Higham about his paternity leave rights campaign

Pregnant Then Screwed’s maternity discrimination campaign isn’t actually just about maternity discrimination. That is how it started, but it has grown to bring in the rights of fathers too. Tom Higham is the partner of Joeli Brearley, the movement’s founder. He has started a petition for equal paternity rights which has gathered nearly 40,000 signatures. He tells us more about his campaign and how it affects everyone, not just individual families…

WHY DID YOU START THE PETITION?

There’s been a push for shared parental leave which is wonderful, but from that there was a narrative emerging around the fact that men aren’t taking it. The way it is portrayed is as if it’s there on offer but people don’t want it, and I find that so patronising but more importantly, it’s not true. The fact is, SPL is not shared and it’s not equal.

WHAT IS THE KEY ISSUE FOR YOU?

Men don’t get access to the same rights as women; they don’t get the six weeks at 90% of their pay as women do, they only get minimum statutory provision. Also, in the main it seems as though lots of companies are not providing any enhanced paternity pay or making it easy for men to take it up. There is a real preference against it, which is a representation of the industrial scale of the cultural biases that we have in our system. When a family unit makes their decisions, it should be based on what is best for them as a family, and sometimes it could be that the best way forward is for the father to take on more of a role. The world is changing, but the legislation hasn’t caught up with it.

WHAT WAS YOUR OWN POSITION: DID YOU WANT TO TAKE SPL?

I was employed when we had kids, and I would have taken SLP. We were looking at how we would split the year and, if SLP had been more then I would have taken it. It wasn’t really an option for us, money-wise, so I ended up leaving my position and going freelance so I could still spend more time with my family. I didn’t want to miss out on those early years. I asked my employer about flexible arrangements but they weren’t thrilled to hear of the idea., There’s a lot of presenteesim in many industries, and there certainly was in mine, even though it’s been proved to be ineffective. When I left I wrote them a long letter outlining why I was going, and the key one was that their inflexibility was not conducive to me having a balance between work and a young family.

YOU WOULD THINK THAT THE ARTS WOULD BE A FORWARD-THINKING INDUSTRY WHEN IT COMES TO THINGS LIKE THIS…

From what I know through Pregnant Then Screwed, some of the worst offenders are academia and the arts, which you would assume would be more ethically-driven. The arts is a really terrible sector for pay for a start but it’s very old-fashioned in a lot of ways. There is also an unwritten rule that it’s an enjoyable job and therefore you don’t need to get paid as much or given the benefits you might in another industry.

HAVE YOU MANAGED TO ACHIEVE THAT BALANCE NOW?

Being freelance has been brilliant in a lot of ways and incredibly tricky in a lot of ways. As Joeli started Pregnant Then Screwed, and hasn’t earnt a penny from it, I had a hard-wired and perhaps old-fashioned anxiety about bringing money in, so I’ve worked more than I intended to, but it is starting to settle down.

WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO CHANGE WITH THE CAMPAIGN?

There’s a horrible attitude of ‘it’s a woman’s choice to have a baby’ which I can’t stand. A) Women don’t usually choose alone, and B) Surely raising happy children affects communities and businesses as a whole. You have to look at the bigger picture, and getting a fair deal for dads is part of that.

WHAT IS THE BENEFIT OF HAVING FATHERS INVOLVED IN CHILDCARE?

It’s impossible to overstate it. Present and engaged fathers help the mental health of everyone in the family. Equal households are happy ones. And we have an opportunity now for things to be different.

WHAT DO YOU HOPE WILL BE ACHIEVED BY THE MARCH OF THE MUMMIES?

It would be wonderful if there’s such an uproar in the House of Commons next week that a bill was put in place and these things became enshrined in law. But, being a realist, there will still be a lot of work to do. The first cop-out is when people say it’s too tough on businesses and that we’re struggling as an economy, but we need to get past this overly simplistic view. Looking after families reduces crime and benefits the economy, so we’ll keep banging our drum and hopefully the march will at least open some doors for us.

IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE THAT NEEDS TO CHANGE IN ORDER FOR DADS TO GET A BETTER DEAL?

I have Jack for one day a week and, whenever I do stuff with him, it’s amazing, even from mums, there’s always the surprise and novelty of a man going to a playgroup or something. It hammers home the issue that it’s not normalised yet. It would be good to get more public figures acting as role models for dads.

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT HOW FAR PREGNANT THEN SCREWED HAS COME?

The one thing that’s interesting to note is how much Joeli has achieved without any financial support. The momentum of her campaign should embarrass the well-supported, well-funded charitable organisations who do not achieve anything. She’s come along with nothing and nobody and set up a blog and a social media campaign and built it up from there. In two years she has built such momentum nationally and internationally, and engaged people in ways big organisations couldn’t dream of. That’s really amazing and not many people could have done this, although she’ll hate me for saying that!

:: Find out more about Pregnant Then Screwed here, and sign Tom's petition here.

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