Construction firms are taking strides to make it easier for parents to juggle work and family life
Paternity and parental leave policies are changing across the industry to support families and make the employment landscape more equal.
The move is also creating more opportunity for women to return to work earlier after maternity leave if they want to.
Lucy Gordon, employment team partner at law firm Walker Morris, explains: “Construction firms are shifting their focus and offering greater benefits in their family-friendly policies as a means of furthering equality, enticing talent and retaining employees.”
Traditionally, such enhancements have been primarily linked to maternity and adoption benefits, but Gordon says: “Businesses offering enhancements to paternity and secondary parent benefits are reaping the cultural rewards.”
Currently, fathers are entitled to up to two weeks of statutory paternity leave.
Statutory Paternity Pay is either £172.48 a week or 90% of their average weekly earnings, whichever is lower.
Mothers can take up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave. The first 26 weeks is known as Ordinary Maternity Leave, the last 26 weeks as Additional Maternity Leave.
Normally Statutory Maternity Pay is paid for up to 39 weeks, with employees paid 90% of average weekly earnings before tax for the first six weeks and £172.48 or 90% of average weekly earnings, whichever is lower, for the next 33 weeks.
Several companies are going a step further than the standard parental leave offering. Sir Robert McAlpine was the first construction company to launch a gender-neutral approach, offering all employees 26 weeks’ full pay for maternity, paternity or adoption leave.
Sir Robert McAlpine chief people officer Karen Brookes explains: “This is to ensure that, whatever the makeup of each individual’s family, they are treated the same and provided with the same benefits.”
Employees have the option to take 26 weeks in one block in the year of the birth or adoption, or in three blocks over three years – 13 weeks in year one, seven weeks in year two, and six weeks in year three.
Brookes emphasises that this “offers real choice and enables individuals to plan based on their family needs, while also considering the needs of the project they might be working on”.
Laing O’Rourke also allows every employee access to 26 weeks’ parental leave on full pay.
This leave is also available for parents who adopt or welcome a baby via surrogacy. It is matched by additional benefits in line with local regulations.
In the UK, for example, the company’s employees can take a full 12 months of parental leave, with the first six at full pay and months seven to nine on half pay.
For those who have taken a minimum of six months, a phased 13-week return to work is also offered, on the basis of working 80% of contracted hours, for 100% pay.
A spokesperson explains: “The policy – any gender, any birth, any child – allows us to create better gender balance and shape an organisation that attracts, supports and retains the most talented people.”
Wates Group is moving in a similar direction, increasing paternity/partner leave to eight weeks on full pay.
The long-term aim is to equalise leave for both parents, but inclusion and diversity director Nikunj Upadhyay explains that the eight weeks seemed “do-able as the first step”.
The firm has increased maternity leave to 26 weeks’ full pay, with a further 26 weeks on Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP).
Wates will also continue to match enhanced entitlement for shared parental leave and adoption leave with maternity leave and pay.
[As] a predominantly male sector, it’s our responsibility to lead on this. It is one way to equalise roles at home and at work
Meanwhile, Kier has similarly increased paternity leave to eight weeks at full pay and extended paid maternity, adoption and shared parental leave, which all include 26 weeks at full pay.
According to Kier head of emerging talent, diversity and inclusion Tracey Collins, the firm has “had some fantastic feedback from colleagues about the impact the paternity leave had on them”.
Wates’ Upadhyay emphasises that the way family leave is traditionally structured creates “an imbalance” springing “from the norms and expectation behind it”.
She says: “We expect women to be primary carers. Therefore, every organisation is very mindful of what time they create for women when they have children and to make sure that there is an acknowledgement of their carer role when they come back to work.
“Men’s statutory paternity leave is one or two weeks and for us that’s based on a quite archaic assumption that men are not involved and they need to be the breadwinners while women take care of the children.”
Similarly, Gordon feels that allowing men to take a longer paternity leave “may lead to a shift in the traditional perception of the need for females to be the sole childcare provider in the family unit”.
She says: “By shifting outdated perceptions in most British industries, generous paternity leave policies may assist in levelling childcare responsibilities.
“In turn, this shift in culture will enable women to take up more positions of responsibility and will likely reduce potential discrimination for positions, promotions and in day-to-day working life.”
Gordon emphasises that “encouraging women to remain in the construction industry will require a multi-faceted approach”. But levelling family leave policies can provide “change for relatively low cost” and “begin the process of balancing equality” in company culture.
Flexibility and understanding
There are many benefits to these changing approaches. Brookes stresses the value of ensuring “individuals feel supported at a time when being there for their family is of even greater importance”.
She says: “We have had some brilliant testimonials from dads who have been able to spend time with their family at a critical juncture and who really appreciate what this time has meant for them.”
The Laing O’Rourke spokesperson similarly states: “Childcare responsibility very rarely sits with one parent and, increasingly, new parents in our business want more time devoted to family.”
Upadhyay adds: “We hear from the new generation that, for them, the balance between work and personal is very important. People recognise the equality of roles at home and at work.”
In addition, the changes enable better understanding of different perspectives in businesses.
Upadhyay explains: “From a culture change perspective, you can create a better environment for anyone coming back after a period of time. You can have good discussions around flexible working. We want to make sure we’re doing better on that too.”
Family leave, she adds, is a good way to test assumptions and build contingency in a business.
“There could be other reasons someone takes time out,” she explains. “If the organisation builds competence and an ability to manage when someone in an important role is out, it increases resilience but also offers support to that individual who might need to take time out.”
This can help businesses build truly diverse leadership and a pipeline into key roles, while also allowing experimentation with different working patterns.
Brookes adds: “Agile and flexible working on sites is another area we have been targeting, to provide real flexibility to project-based personnel on a day-to-day basis.
“Of course, this is aimed at everyone on site, but will certainly benefit families. It is not prescriptive, giving freedom within a framework for each site to agree the best approach for them and the project.”
This [paternity leave] shift in culture will enable women to take up more positions of responsibility and will likely reduce potential discrimination for positions, promotions and in day-to-day working life
For the wider industry, Upadhyay stresses that the changes are “one of the key ways to close the gender pay gap”, encourage inclusivity and attract a more diverse workforce.
She adds: “[As] a predominantly male sector, it’s our responsibility to lead on this. It is one way to equalise roles at home and at work.”
Collins agrees that family-friendly, flexible policies “are an important part of creating a more inclusive workplace culture”, while Brookes feels that across the sector “there is definitely scope for more flexible parental leave policies”.
She says: “It can be challenging with clients who, perhaps for the first time, are seeing male colleagues take 26 or 13 weeks’ paid leave when their child is born or adopted.
“Given that it has traditionally been the role of the female, and construction is to a large extent still male dominated, this is creating much more noise.
“It is change, which is always difficult – but if it is for the benefit of the family, our industry and society as a whole, it has to be worth it.”
According to Gordon, “anecdotal reports” across construction and other industries suggest that such changes “are welcomed by male and female employees alike”.
She continues: “It is too early to measure the benefits in terms of progression to senior positions, but there is certainly a shift in the construction industry, one which mirrors a wider cultural movement.
“The reality of this appears to be one of ‘catch up or be left behind’.”