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Baby steps for parents working in fashion

After luxury powerhouses Burberry and Kering revealed updated parental leave policies, Drapers looks at what lessons the rest of the fashion industry can learn

Once considered primarily a female concern that affects new mums, it is now more widely accepted that childcare is the responsibility of all parents, regardless of gender or orientation.

Companies from a variety of sectors are offering increasingly generous maternity and paternity leave to try to attract and retain the best staff. However, even though some fashion employers are notable for their offers, the sector as a whole does not stand out.

When the legal rights of mothers and fathers are the same, the problem of how to reconcile professional and personal obligations falls equally on the shoulders of men and women

Shelagh McKenzie, Cavendish Law

The importance of the matter was recognised by the UK government when it introduced shared parental leave in 2015. But take-up has been low: its 2018 “Share The Joy” campaign to encourage parents to make use of shared leave showed that of the 258,000 couples who qualify each year, only around 2% take it up. Yet there are several benefits.

Shelagh McKenzie, a senior employment lawyer at Cavendish Employment Law Limited, says shared parental leave can encourage gender equality in the workplace: “When the legal rights of mothers and fathers are the same, then the problem of how to reconcile professional and personal obligations falls equally on the shoulders of men and women, instead of disproportionately on the shoulders of women.

“Female employees are less likely to suspect that any private employer deliberations relating to maternity/paternity leave, in the context of recruitment or promotion decisions, are more likely to be disadvantageous to them.”

The statutory minimum of two weeks’ paid paternity leave is woefully inadequate

Sam Smethers, The Fawcett Society

Some fashion brands – particularly in the luxury space – are cottoning on to the need for better parental leave policies. In November 2019, Burberry announced an update to its policy, which will offer its 10,000 worldwide employees 18 weeks of parental leave at full pay, and the opportunity to work a 30-hour week at full pay for four weeks on their return. It will come into effect from 1 April 2020, and those who have worked for the brand for at least one year will be eligible.

Chief people officer Erica Bourne said at the time Burberry’s policy is “leading in the luxury industry”.

The Fawcett Society campaigns for women’s rights and gender equality. Chief executive Sam Smethers thinks the brand’s policy is a step in the right direction: “Burberry’s offer to parents is more generous than most, and significantly, gives dads access to the same paid leave as mums. This is key to enabling parents to share the care of their children in that first year, which in turn helps mothers return to work.

“The statutory minimum of two weeks’ paid paternity leave is woefully inadequate. It’s time to bring paid parental leave into the 21st century. We need to support parents to care for their children as they wish to.”

Luxury v high street

In September 2019, luxury group Kering, which has 38,000 employees worldwide, updated its existing allowance, which gave mothers 14 weeks leave at full pay, but only offered five days of paternity or partner leave at full pay. The new policy, which started at the beginning of this year, offers equal paternity and partner leave for 14 weeks of full pay, to be taken within the first six months following birth or adoption and is available to those who have worked at the company for 12 months.

The picture on the high street, meanwhile, is mixed. Many retailers just offer the statutory minimum. Drapers approached several leading high street retailers to comment on their parental leave policies. Debenhams declined to reveal details, but says it “follows statutory policy on parental leave, which we believe is in line with industry norms”.

Asda’s George would not give specific information, but a spokesman tells Drapers: “We think it’s really important that we offer a competitive maternity and paternity leave so colleagues can take the right amount of time they need before returning to work.”

Etailer Asos offers maternity and shared parental leave for 18 weeks on full pay, paternity at six weeks full pay, flexible working and additional benefits on a case-by-case basis.

There are many companies in the fashion industry that only offer the basic statutory maternity pay

London-based headhunter

Spanish giant Inditex offers new mums 26 weeks of full pay – but only after three years of service. This falls to 18 weeks at two years, and statutory for anything less. Its paternity leave is two weeks of full pay after 26 weeks’ service.

Marks & Spencer did not provide full details of its allowance, which includes 52 weeks of shared parental leave, but Nicola Jones, its head of employment policy, tells Drapers it also offers “the morning off when your little one starts school, or for fertility treatment, or to go through the fostering process. 

“Alongside this we continue to focus on offering flexible-working options for parents where we can, such as reduced term-time hours and job shares.”

UK employees who have been at H&M for more than two years are given an extra six weeks’ maternity leave at 90% of their salary, on top of the six weeks of statutory leave. The first week of paternity leave will be paid at 90% of average weekly earnings – if employed at the company for more than two years at the due date of birth.

A spokesperson for the retailer told Drapers, ”we try to be as supportive as possible of parents in the workplace, particularly when it comes to our company culture. We hope to make things easy for our colleagues during every step of their journey towards parenthood, right through from clear and upfront communication about our maternity, paternity and adoption leave packages, through to celebrating a new addition to a colleague’s family by sending flowers and a gift card, and eventually helping that colleague to transition back into the workplace following their period of leave.”

John Lewis, Primark, New Look, Next, Sainsbury’s Tu, River Island, Arcadia Group, TK Maxx and Matalan did not respond to requests for comment.

One London-based headhunter who specialises in fashion says generous policies in the industry are scarce: “There are many companies in the fashion industry that only offer the basic statutory maternity pay. Some of the best offer comprehensive support both while on leave and upon return, but this is a small number.”

Trailing behind

Other industries appear to be further ahead. A 2019 study by Dutch research company Equileap looked into which UK companies were best for gender equality, and parental leave was one of the studied factors. 

What we’ve proved is when you create a culture of openness and challenge stereotypes, men do want to be involved

Anthony Fitzpatrick, Aviva

Insurance company Aviva was found to have one of the best. Its equal parental leave policy was introduced in November 2017 and offers 26 weeks leave at full pay for all staff, regardless of length of service, in the first year of a child’s birth or adoption.

Of its 16,000 UK employees, 1,380 have taken advantage of the policy, 680 of whom were men.

Aviva’s head of employee policy, Anthony Fitzpatrick, says: “It was the right thing to do for our people. What we’ve proved is when you create a culture of openness and challenge stereotypes, men do want to be involved.” He adds that having an equal policy will also aid women in the workplace, as “the potential career risk, of development and progression becomes degendered”.

Investment company Aberdeen Standard Life provides 40 weeks on full pay, regardless of gender, within two years of a birth or adoption. It can be taken as one block or in up to three tranches.

Rose Thomson, chief HR officer, tells Drapers: “We decided we wanted our parental leave policy to be market leading, as we believe it will be a real differentiator for attracting and retaining top talent. It’s not shared leave: if an employee takes the full entitlement, it doesn’t limit what their partner can take.”

For some companies, budgetary restrictions and the need to have people present in essential roles can limit the generosity of parental leave.

Fitzpatrick says, “Resourcing and affordability can be an issue. Any policy enhancements have to be manageable, I don’t want people to think, ‘We have to do 26 weeks like Aviva.’ But look for small wins that will make a big difference to people.”

 It’s a case of balancing the employee’s well-being with what the company needs

Caroline Pill, Kirk Palmer Associates

Caroline Pill, vice-president of global executive search at Kirk Palmer Associates, adds: “It’s about offering solutions and flexible working – allowing them to take more time out, and providing training and programmes to encourage women to return.”

However, she also cautions that a balance has to be struck between business and employee needs: “Everything needs to be assessed. Businesses evolve and respond to urgent situations on a case-by-case basis, so [if a staff member is on maternity or paternity leave] someone else might have to step in. It’s a case of balancing the employee’s well-being with what the company needs to be able to perform.”

Childrenswear and maternity brand Jojo Maman Bébé encourages shared leave. It offers 4.5 months’ full maternity pay and a bonus of one month’s salary three months after mothers return to work.

HR director Karen Fry says the retailer takes the difficulties of returning to work into consideration: “We work with our returning parents with flexible working arrangements where this is possible. It’s so important to understand that employers can retain their talented and loyal employees if you are prepared to work with them on what returning to work looks like – of course taking into consideration business needs.”

Parental leave should not be a taboo subject, and high street retailers that employ a large proportion of the population should be more open about their policies. In the luxury segment of the market, Burberry and Kering are proud of their offers, but fashion is still trailing behind other sectors and needs to catch up to remain competitive.


 Parental leave by numbers

- 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave, 39 of which are paid

- Statutory maternity pay: 90% of average weekly earnings before tax for the first six weeks

- £148.68 (expected to rise to £151.20 from April) or 90% of average weekly wage (whichever is lower), for the remaining 33 weeks

- Statutory paternity leave is two weeks at 90% of weekly earnings or £151.20 from April (whichever is lower)

- Shared parental leave allows parents to share 50 weeks off, 37 of which are paid, either splitting or taking it at the same time

- Shared parental leave pay rates are the same as statutory paternity pay

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