Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Shared parental leave: Can assistance for new parents ever keep pace with reality?

Shared parental leave ... A recent analysis suggested policy-makers have been 'complicit in maintaining gender inequality.'

Shared parental leave ... A recent analysis suggested policy-makers have been 'complicit in maintaining gender inequality.' Image: REUTERS/Hannah McKay

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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Gender Inequality

  • Shared parental leave is becoming a reality in more places around the world, most recently South Africa.
  • But the progressive policy often remains better in theory than in practice.
  • If it can reflect the ways modern economies actually work, big gains are projected.
  • The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2023 says governments are recognizing the importance of investing in the care economy, and the Global Future Council of the Care Economy identifies related investments, incentives, and partnerships that are needed.

A 19th-century portrait of a quietly seething bride-to-be recently emerged as a handy TikTok meme to air a wide variety of grievances. But it’s possible the painting’s Parisian subject was scowling specifically because she was about to bear the brunt of parenting duties, at a time when French women were having about twice as many children as they do now.

Not long after “The Hesitant Fiancée” dried, some countries began to take their first, faltering steps to address the inequities of motherhood. In 1877, Switzerland banned the employment of pregnant women. At factories, anyway. The following year, Germany began keeping new mothers at home for a few weeks after giving birth. Unpaid, of course. The flowering of the welfare state led to international recognition of the right to paid time off following childbirth in 1919. Most nations now have some sort of maternity leave on the books (with a glaring exception).

For women, in some ways this has just made matters worse.

Societies tend to need two things to happen at the same time: children to be raised, and economies to grow. But more than a century after that unhappy fiancée in Paris was initiated into the joys of family life, we still haven’t figured out exactly how to pull this off. The most promising path may be designing leave to be shared – in a way that can better balance the parenting load, and gender-specific pay.

Earlier this month, a high court decision in South Africa put that country on track to be the first in Africa to introduce shared parental leave. Dozens of other countries already make it available. Yet, the concept is still a work in progress.

Even in places where fathers can take paid leave, they often don't.
Even in places where fathers can take paid leave, they often don't. Image: World Economic Forum

This past June, voters in Geneva, Switzerland approved a pioneering shared parental leave scheme that grants six weeks to couples to divide up as they please – on top of existing maternity and paternity leave. But in Bern, a Swiss canton about a two-hour drive to the east, a parental leave proposal on the ballot that same day was met with “scathing” rejection.

The divide is a pretty fair representation of shared leave’s uneven momentum.

Even where it’s available, which is primarily in northern Europe, relatively few men make use of it. Sweden’s at the high end, with nearly 350 male recipients of publicly administered parental leave benefits per 100 births (that compares with 409 female recipients; each parent can spread it out across multiple blocks). In Quebec, more than 90% of fathers have taken leave, but the Canadian province is an outlier – in the country as a whole, mothers take leave more than twice as often as fathers.

That type of disparity is common. In some of the wealthiest nations in the world making shared leave available, including Austria, Poland, and the Czech Republic, take-up among men has been stuck below 10 recipients per 100 births.

Often, the model is tripped up by the reality of basic human needs and behaviour.

Employees tend to be wary of the pay cut that can result from taking paternity leave, or the potentially career-limiting stigma that might be attached to it. Employers have demonstrated that these fears aren’t necessarily unfounded – research shows that in some cases men taking leave do indeed see their future earnings potential suffer as a result.

Have you read?

How to avoid being ‘complicit’ in gender inequality

For anyone thinking bigger picture, though, shared leave makes sound economic sense.

In South Africa, for example, proponents say adopting a shared leave model will bring the law more in line with reality, because a grossly disproportionate amount of caring for young children has been tasked to women. And that’s true not just in South Africa.

An analysis published earlier this year by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles found that choosing to marginalize the female workforce by designating it for childcare service fundamentally undermines economic stability. It suggested that equal labour force participation in Africa, for example, would boost the region’s collective GDP by 10% in just a few years. “More often than not, governments are complicit in maintaining gender inequality,” the authors wrote.

Other benefits of harmonizing child-rearing are less tangible. Those raised by parents taking shared leave tend to have better “outcomes” (a wonky way of saying achievement, health and happiness), while the parents themselves seem to have better “relationship satisfaction” (no translation required).

In much of the world, it’s simply gotten too expensive to have kids. Yet, countries with ageing labour pools literally can't afford to discourage people from starting families, or to lose too many of them to full-time parenting when they do.

In Australia, where female labour participation remains close to 60% compared with more than 70% for men, proponents of a recently introduced shared parental leave programme say it will keep more women in the workforce – and add the equivalent of $84 billion to the economy in the process.

What exactly was on the mind of this hesitant fiancée?
What exactly was on the mind of this hesitant fiancée? Image: Auguste Toulmouche (Public Domain)

A full embrace of shared parental leave might require a generational shift.

In the US, for example, one study found that 36% of men there over the age of 65 think fathers shouldn’t be able to take any paternity leave – but for men between the age of 30 and 49, the figure dipped to 10%.

California adopted the country’s first paid family leave programme, which offers up to eight weeks of payments to people who want to take time off from work to bond with a new child, in 2004. By 2018, the portion of claims made by men had risen from 16% to 38%.

Eleven of the 50 US states now require most companies to offer at least some paid parental leave. But employers choosing to provide time off beyond what’s mandatory have recently been paring back.

Even when potentially helpful new schemes are expanded or created from scratch, details matter.

In the UK, a shared parental leave policy introduced in 2015 has been criticized for everything from paltry payments for fathers equal to half the country’s living wage, to a “bogus” definition of the word “shared.” As of this past summer, the programme’s take-up rate among eligible mothers was 1%, and for fathers it was 5%.

Clearly, getting the laws we need in place is one thing. Doing it in a way that makes practical sense for new parents is another.

More reading on balancing procreation with economic progress

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • This analysis of the UK’s shared parental leave policy argues that few people make use of it because it was designed “without considering how beliefs about who provides the ‘best parenting’ can shape parental decisions.” (The Conversation)
  • If we want to make paternity leave more attractive, flexibility is probably more important than financial incentives, according to this study of reforms in Austria. (VoxEU)
  • Not a bad benefit – a Swedish policy implemented in 1995 to designate parental leave for new fathers led to far fewer being hospitalized for alcohol-related reasons, according to this study. (Science Daily)
  • “Often, many employees – and even executives – don’t fully understand what their policies offer.” Cutting back on parental leave in the US is “bad business,” according to this piece. (MIT Sloan Management Review)
  • China is pushing ahead with a policy to boost its birth rate, and according to this piece parental leave is poised to cost companies there an average of about $2,500 per new birth. It’s enough, according to one cited expert, to deter companies from embracing the policy. (YiCai Global)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Gender Inequality, Work, forward-looking Governance and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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