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A Level Playing Field: Why Five by Five Is Implementing Gender-Neutral Parental Leave
Advertising Agency
London, UK
Human resources director Katie Whittam-Hayes tells LBB what makes the case for the policy so overwhelming, and how Five by Five is making it a reality

Life as a new parent comes with countless challenges attached - and that’s before considering the workplace. 

Unfortunately, however, many of our industry’s well-documented issues related to gender representation can be traced back to policies and norms regarding parental leave. In the UK, consider how heavily incentivised mothers are to take parental leave ahead of fathers: The state pays 26 times more to a mother on the average wage in her first year after birth than it does to a father. 

In the big picture, that has deep consequences. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that by the time a woman’s first child is 12 years old, her hourly pay rate is 33% behind that of a man. And the average woman in her 20s today can be expected to retire with £100,000 less in her pension pot than her male colleagues. Gallingly, a woman would need to work for an estimated 37 more years in order to bridge that gap. 

And so, for all the well-intentioned initiatives and progressive values in today’s industry landscape, the wider socioeconomic context is stacked against equality. That’s unless, of course, that context can be changed. 

True to their identity as ‘Creative Problem Solvers’, the independent creative and innovation agency Five by Five is setting out to do just that. The company is pioneering a policy of gender-neutral parental leave aimed at levelling the playing field and providing equal incentives for mothers and fathers alike. To find out more about the policy, LBB spoke to Five by Five’s human resources director Katie Whittam-Hayes. 

“Not Women Having Babies, But Parents Having Children”

For Katie, the case for trying something different had become impossible to ignore. “It’s universally agreed that something needs to be done in order to advance equality in the world of work”, she says, “but for many companies the answer has been to double down on offering more generous maternity benefits. However well intentioned, that doesn’t address the root of the issue”.

In fact, there’s reason to believe it makes matters worse. Rather than making life easier for women, increasing their maternity benefits whilst doing nothing for men only serves to heighten the impact on women’s careers. Instead, Katie suggests, the benefits should be split more equitably. 

“What we shouldn’t do is pour more petrol on the fire that says it’s for women to stay at home and look after babies”, she argues. “Instead, we should be looking for ways to empower men to take time off when they become fathers”.

The result of that thinking is a new company-wide policy for Five by Five UK: Gender-neutral parental leave. Under the scheme, it doesn’t matter which parent you are - you’ll be entitled to 26 weeks of leave (13 of which with full pay, and a further 13 of half pay). Crucially, that boils down to 24 additional weeks of pay for fathers, non-birth parents, or secondary adopters than is currently offered as standard in the UK. 

A key aspect of Five by Five’s offering is the fact that the amount of leave between mother and father is not ‘shared’ or split, as has been the case under legislation since 2015. Instead, the 26 weeks is an individual entitlement. If a mother wishes to have further time off beyond those 26 weeks, they would still be entitled to statutory maternity pay. The company’s policy will come into effect this year. 

“For me, the key part of what we’re doing, and what makes it truly modern, is that it doesn’t matter how you came into parenthood”, says Katie. “There’s no difference in what we offer whether you’re a mother, father, birth parent, non-birth parent, primary adopter, or secondary adopter. It’s not about women having babies anymore - it’s about parents having children”. 

Taking Responsibility

Perhaps in an ideal world, there would be no need for a gender-neutral parental leave initiative to be introduced. Yet according to Katie, waiting for the government or others to take action first would be a mistake. 

“The government did introduce shared parental leave, but it’s probably fair to say that the system hasn’t worked”, she explains. “Fewer than 37% of parents are actually eligible for it in the first place, and of that number only 2% have used it. That amounts to less than 1% of parents who are benefitting from what was already a flawed system”. 

And so, the most direct way to take positive action is for companies to integrate their own initiatives. “What I’m quite proud of is that it’s also an expression of who we are as a company”, says Katie. “As an independent and family-owned agency, we want to be doing everything in our power to support the families connected to us. That’s a key value for us, and it’s important that we walk the walk”. 

Ultimately, the hope must be that more companies will follow suit in broadening out paternity options to their staff on the basis of equality. “I hope we’ll see a shift generally for it to be just as much the norm for men and non-birth parents to take significant time off to care for their new arrivals as it is for women, and that we don’t think about gender when it comes to childcare”, says Katie. “It’s only when this happens that we’ll have equality, and we won’t see women’s careers being impacted disproportionately.” 

Whilst Five by Five might not be the first organisation to introduce such a policy, it remains a long way from becoming an industry standard. 

As an agency, Five by Five has positioned itself as creative problem solvers. What the company is proving is that this philosophy doesn’t begin and end with its work for clients.