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You’d be hard pushed to find an organisation that says it doesn’t take diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) seriously. Many corporate websites are adorned with DEI pleasing statements, reassuring readers that their organisation creates a level playing field and opportunities for all. Yet expectation and reality don’t often align. Ask some leaders for specifics around how DEI operates within the business day-to-day, with parental leave and caring responsibilities for example, and they’re stumped. Queries quickly get referred to HR, to provide details around policies and procedures.

But if we want to ensure that organisations are genuinely diverse, including retaining parents in the workplace, leaders need to know some of the finer DEI details. Leaders shouldn’t just palm employees off to another department for more information but be able to confidently talk through parental leave and return options, and support, themselves. It sends a powerful message to employees that their needs are understood, transition into parenthood supported, and the organisation practices what it preaches.

Workforce dropout and engagement rates show that organisations and leaders still need to do much more to address the barriers many parents face in achieving equality in the workplace. The first step is for leaders to challenge themselves with the following questions:

Rather than leaving this to HR to answer, its important leaders understand their parental policies and how competitive they are. Excuses such as having never been a parent, or it being a long time since looking after small children, won’t cut it with talented employees. Being able to discuss flexible options with employees lets them know that they are valued and can be supported through the transition to parenthood – rather than being left to fend for themselves.

The take up of Shared Parental Leave (SPL) is typically low, with research finding that only 2% of eligible couples used it. Despite SPL policies promising to transform gender equality, that has yet to be realised. Leaders need to understand what SPL take-up rates are like within their own organisation and address any subsequent barriers to parents achieving equality in the workplace.

Feedback from parents regarding SPL has generally been that taking a pay cut to £150 per week is “unpalatable if not impossible” for couples to manage – explaining why take-up is so low. This often results in males and non-birthing partners using very limited leave, whilst the other parent takes a hit on their career. For leaders that genuinely want a diverse workforce, the playing field for parents has to be levelled out more. SPL can’t be relied upon stand-alone, so what more can businesses and leaders do to retain talented employees that have become parents?

Research by Deloitte and DaddiLife found that one third of fathers changed jobs since becoming a parent – with 39% pinpointing ‘flexibility to fulfil parental responsibilities’ as a reason to leave. Another third said they were ‘actively looking’ for a new role since becoming a father. The research highlighted that generational norms and gender-role stereotypes are on the way out amongst Millennial dads in particular, making it even more important that businesses understand what fathers and non-birthing partners are entitled to and supporting lifestyle choices.

Parents and carers have out-of-work responsibilities that they may have to attend. Is the team properly structured so that client delivery can be maintained? Or is too much pressure heaped on the parent or carer to maintain high levels of service, making their other responsibilities unachievable? Equally, are colleagues without active caring duties able to realistically pick up the slack if necessary? With many employees expected to “work like they’re not a parent, and parent like they don’t work” something has got it give and teams need to be structured to support diverse lifestyles.

Many leaders assume this knowledge and are then surprised to learn about what teammates real aspirations are. Leaders must ask these questions directly and align opportunities accordingly. Career paths can follow many trajectories, but many leaders fall into the trap of assuming teammates want careers that mirror their own. Asking employees what their goals are can create a more engaged and productive team, unlocking potential further.

Leaders need to ask themselves a few home truths when it comes to their understanding and supporting of parents in the business. Providing genuinely flexible options, enabling employees to maintain career control, and assigning value to contribution over time spent in an office, are all crucial areas businesses need to address if they are to retain exceptional talent.

Expectations around parenthood continue to evolve, with more voting with their feet when company procedures and leadership attitudes don’t align with carefully crafted DEI literature. Leaders can no longer delegate knowledge of parental policies to another department, they have to understand it better themselves. With a significant proportion of employees becoming parents during their careers, leaders need to ensure they support the transition as best as possible and maintain a diverse workforce.