Gender-equal parental leave: an urgent right, a long way off?

On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly held in September last year, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a panel discussion with UN Women titled ‘Parental Leave: A Key to Prosperity’. I was almost moved to tears when Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women said: “Once you remove the fatherhood privilege, the motherhood burden is forgiven.”

As the mother of an 18-month-old toddler attempting to have a functional career in journalism, the question of parental leave resonates deeply with me. I have certainly felt the ‘motherhood burden’, given the fact that as an employee of a private company in India, my husband had just ten days of paternity leave. Neither the Indian government nor the multinational he worked for thought that, as a father, he would need more time with his child.

But according to the International Network on Leave Policies and Research, the concept of gender-equal transferable and non-transferable parental leave is slowly becoming mainstream.

Margaret O’Brien, director of the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the Department of Social Science, University College London, has been studying the role of fathers as caregivers for over three decades. “I realised that men were hidden from inquiry about the domestic, mirroring women’s exclusion from studies of history and in the public,” says O’Brien.

As a growing body of research reveals the benefits of paid parental leave to the health and well-being of a child, as well as greater involvement of the father in long-term caregiving, the notion of paid parental leave is an acknowledgment of the father’s right to parenthood as well as its benefits.

“When women are not able to take the leave they need, they are pushed into lower paying jobs or pushed out of the work force,” says Molly Weston-Williamson, staff attorney at A Better Balance, an advocacy group led by a group of lawyers, focused on advancing the right to a work-life balance in the United States.

The US is one of the only advanced economies without a law that guarantees paid family leave. In fact, a key study by sociologist Michelle J. Budig found that for every child a working American woman has, her salary goes down by 4 per cent, while men generally benefit from having children as employers tend to value fatherhood.

A few days before the UN panel discussion on parental leave in September 2017, the International Labour Organization (ILO), UN Women and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) launched the Equal Pay International Coalition (EPIC), an initiative promoting equal pay between men and women for work of equal value. Discussions during the launch frequently veered towards parental leave, with panellists partly attributing the gender gap to poor paid leave policies.

Parental leave is “the only social right in many nations you can transfer from one person to another,” said European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans at the launch of EPIC, as he argued for individualised, non-transferable parental leave as the norm, as well as a tool to correct long-term gender wage gap.

The role of unions and childcare

In many parts of the world, where parental leave is legal (and implemented fairly), this is often because of the work of labour unions, says John Budd, an industrial relations, human resources and labour studies professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. This is also true for states in the US, including California, where parental leave laws exist.

“There are many barriers to parental leave and other benefits: a policy might not even exist in workplace either because legislation or a company doesn’t provide it; if there is a policy, workers might not know about it or fully understand it; even if they fully understand it, they might not be able to afford it; even if they can afford it, they might be afraid of negative consequences such as supervisor reprisals or reduced advancement opportunities,” Budd tells Equal Times.

“Unions can potentially help workers at each of the steps, from lobbying for legislative change and bargaining for specific workplace policies, to providing information, to helping make a leave affordable, to combating negative consequences,” he says.

“It’s not the case that all companies will necessarily want to promote these policies, or even within well-intentioned companies, not all managers will necessarily be uniformly supportive, so the resources and advocacy that unions provide are important for overcoming these barriers,” he adds.

Sigbjørn Johnsen, the former Norwegian Finance Minister, has equated the economic impact of high participation of women in the country’s workforce to its substantial petroleum wealth; Johnsen partly attributed Norway’s parental leave policy to the high number of women in the labour market.

In addition to parental leave, some people attribute the high productivity of Norway’s female workforce to universal access to subsidised childcare. Norwegian kindergartens accept children from the age of one and follow a play-based curriculum.

However, subsidised day-care facilities, particularly for very young children, need to be closely monitored for quality of care. In Quebec, the government offers subsidised day-care at CAN$7 per day, irrespective of the financial status of the parents, because of a family-friendly policy launched in 1997. In the years following the policy, the participation of women in Quebec’s labour force increased rapidly compared to other provinces in Canada. A recent study claimed, however, that some of the children who had been through Quebec’s subsidised childcare programme suffered detrimental impacts on their non-cognitive skills such as motivation, perseverance and self-control. On the other hand, positive outcomes of similar government-led daycare programmes in Norway, where high standards for quality care were enforced through stringent regulatory mechanisms, suggest that behaviour problems may be caused by factors unrelated to care.

Most Nordic countries offer gender-equal parental leave that reserves a quota of non-transferable leave for the fathers.

In 2000, Iceland adopted a nine-month parental leave policy, where both parents are eligible for three months of non-transferable ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ parental leave each, with another three months of flexible leave that either one of the parents can use.

In 2012, 92.7 per cent of Icelandic fathers took a period of leave. Without the individualised, non-transferable quota, increased participation in childcare by fathers would be “an immensely slow process,” says Ingólfur Gíslason, a former divisional head of research and information at the Centre for Gender Equality, a government body in Iceland. Gíslason was also the secretary of the committee that designed the landmark parental leave model adopted by Iceland in 2000.

“Evidence shows that any leave design where men’s access is dependent on maternal transfer does not facilitate fathers’ uptake. UK legislators have used the ‘politically correct’ term of ‘shared parental leave’ when the measure is maternity leave with an option to transfer,” says O’Brien. Indeed, in the UK, only 1 per cent of the men take some leave as part of the shared parental leave policy that was introduced in 2015.

Another crucial element to increasing fathers’ take-up of leave is economic compensation, which shouldn’t go below 75 to 80 per cent of the regular salary according to Gíslason, who is now an associate professor at the School of Social Sciences, University of Iceland.

“Most young couples walk an economic tightrope and cannot really afford a major reduction in family income. And since the situation is still that men earn, on average, more than women, the family is very dependent on his share of the family income,” he adds.

But it is also about closing the gender pay gap – to make it economically viable for men (usually the higher earners) to take time off to look after their children. The strong social dialogue that exits in the Nordic countries is a huge factor in this success.

Leave makes business sense

In the US, paid parental leave often finds a lot of resistance from businesses, says Weston-Williamson. “Businesses worry about the economic impact, and also that the leave will be abused or have other negative effects on business. But research shows that businesses generally benefit from parental leave.”

In 2004, California became one of the first states to implement a paid family leave policy in the US. Over a decade later, studies have shown that the policy has had a neutral or positive effect on productivity, employee morale and turnover, and that paid leave abuse is rare.

Most countries with paid parental leave draw upon public funds to support the policy.

Four of the US states that have adopted paid family leave policies have built upon existing insurance programmes, where workers are compensated for time away from work due to illness, injury or caregiving responsibilities.

“Business concerns are justified, and our studies show that the vast majority of paid leave policies in place are funded by insurance or public funds, although this is mostly the case for maternity leave,” says Laura Addati, a maternity protection and work-family specialist at the ILO. “The ILO advocates allocating public funds for paternal leave as well.”

There are no easy solutions. “The way the world of work is organised, with long working hours and other pressures, it is incompatible with caring,” says Addati. “Our productive systems constrain both men and women, as reproductive work is being reorganised around productive work. The point is to also question the system.”