Parental leave policies vary widely around the globe. In many Nordic countries there is a general policy of 12 months’ paid parental leave to be shared among parents however they wish. Australians get 18 weeks of semi-paid parental leave. The UK walks a middle ground with 50 weeks of parental leave, 37 weeks of which are paid. In all cases, there has been a shift from maternity leave, where only the mother has a right to take paid time off from work to care for a child, to parental leave, where parents can arrange how to share that time off between them in a way that works best for their family. The goal is to allow more flexibility, but also to adapt to changing gender roles and norms about childcare and work.
However, in all these cases, the vast majority – and often the entirety – of parental leave is taken by the mother. While there may have been an intent to encourage more men to take time off to care for their children in the early stages of their lives, many fathers seem to opt out of that. For many families, this makes rational sense – fathers tend to earn more money, so if it’s a semi-paid leave it makes more sense for the mother to take time off than the men. But more often than not, research shows that the reason men aren’t taking advantage of parental leave is due to societal expectations about who the primary caregiver of children should be.
In Quebec, Canada, the government sought to change this trend. Canada as a country has a policy of 50 weeks’ paid parental leave to be shared among parents. Quebec added to this with five additional weeks of paternity leave that only fathers could take. And if they didn’t use it within 55 weeks of the child’s birth, they would lose the entitlement.
As a result of this policy, an increasing number of fathers have been taking time off to be with their young children, and this has expanded into increasing the share of parental leave they take off as well. And the results have been impressive.
Analysis of the effects of the early involvement of fathers in the care of their children has shown that Quebec’s policy has resulted in increased connection with children, a greater feeling of responsibility in fathers, an increase in mutual trust and relationship strength between the two parents, a better understanding by fathers of being a working mother, increased family involvement among fathers later in life, better relationships with other women with whom these fathers work, and fewer negative effects for mothers who can return to work earlier than they might otherwise.
With all these benefits, it seems to make sense that the UK should adopt a similar paternity leave policy. Given the significant issues of gender pay gaps, unequal distributions of household labour, sexual harassment in the workplace, and general gender discrimination that still plagues UK society, adopting a paternity leave policy may be the first step in changing the culture of childcare and gendered perceptions of working parents.
We can institute all the policies we want to rectify the differences between how men and women are treated in society and at work. But to create lasting change, we need to change cultures, habits, and the way we think about who takes care of children. A fathers-only leave policy may be an effective first step toward creating that more equal, desirable culture.
Raafi Alidina is an associate at Frost Included and co-author of Building an Inclusive Organisation