Governments must encourage men to use paternity leave – here’s why

Despite recent legislative changes, life for working dads can be difficult. Even with mandated paternity leave becoming more common, social pressures often dictate that they should focus on their career rather than their newborn child

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Many organisations are realising how short-sighted it is to offer an inadequate paternity leave programme or to discourage new fathers from making use of it

As society changes, the corporate world can find it hard to keep up. Many working mothers will be able to attest to this. Despite recent improvements to maternity leave, plenty still find it difficult to juggle the demands of raising a child alongside their career; many others will have been the victims of discrimination, directly or indirectly, for taking time away from their job to start a family. Life for working dads, however, can be challenging in a different way.

Despite fathers gaining more parental rights of late, social norms still dictate that the mother is viewed as the primary caregiver. This is not only damaging to mothers’ careers and family harmony; it also has negative consequences for businesses too.

Fortunately, many organisations are realising how short-sighted it is to offer an inadequate paternity leave programme or to discourage new fathers from making use of it. This, alongside government legislation, will certainly make a big difference to the lives of many working men, but social and cultural changes will be needed if paternity leave is to be seen as the norm.

Productive parents
In January this year, the European Parliament announced that it had reached an agreement on the establishment of 10-day minimum paternity leave across the EU, with time off set to be remunerated on the same basis as maternity leave. The provisional directive, which is yet to become EU law, also mandated an additional two months of non-transferrable paid parental leave, with a payment level to be set by individual member states.

The ruling is a landmark one for many prospective working fathers. While it is true it will make little difference in some states – in France, paternity leave of at least 11 days is already guaranteed – in others, it will provide much needed familial support.

Organisations are realising how short-sighted it is to offer an inadequate paternity leave programme or to discourage new fathers from making use of it

“Across Europe, paternity leave entitlements vary greatly from country to country with some simply offering no leave and others, like Spain, set to offer 16 weeks at full pay by 2021,” Michelle Hobson, Commercial HR Director at Moorepay, told European CEO. “Now that a recent approval of 10 days minimum for countries across Europe has been pushed through, it will make a difference in promoting consistency.”

Although initially the new ruling may mean that firms will have an extra financial burden to bear – particularly if they need to hire additional paternity cover – in the long term they also stand to benefit. By offering a more robust paternity leave programme, they are more likely to retain their best male members of staff. In fact, a study last year by Brazilian NGO Promundo found that 69 percent of fathers were willing to change jobs if it meant they could spend more time with their child. The figure for women was marginally lower, at 66 percent.

“An investment in working fathers will undoubtedly unleash talent that may have been previously restricted through a lack of choice,” explained Lauren Touré, a senior consultant for Frost Included, a consultancy dedicated to helping people understand diversity and inclusion. “Employers will create a more inclusive and engaging working environment. This has been proven to reduce staff retention costs and attract a greater pool of talent. Existing staff have the potential to be more productive, committed and suitably equipped for being better leaders. New ways of working [increase] staff agility and flexibility for applying themselves and diversifying their skill set.”

There is a growing body of research that demonstrates how important paternity leave is to the male workforce and their employers. A 2010 study on the impact of California’s paid family leave programme found that 89 percent of employers noticed either a positive or no noticeable effect on productivity, with the figure rising to 99 percent when assessing employee morale. When businesses are assessing the quality of their paternity leave programme, one thing they should consider is whether it’s good enough to stop their members of staff from moving on to one of their competitors.

More to do
The recent ruling by the European Parliament is just one of a number of recent developments that have provided additional support to working fathers. From the start of April this year, fathers in Spain have been granted eight weeks of paternity leave, while in Sweden, parents have enjoyed 480 days of paid leave – with 90 days of those exclusive to each parent – for some time. But legislative changes may not be enough to level the playing field between mothers and fathers.

“We have a long way to go in improving paternity leave,” explained Paul Guess, a case management officer at CABA, a charity supporting the wellbeing of chartered accountants and their families. “To do this we need to encourage more employers to take it seriously and communicate the benefits of the scheme to staff. We need to remove this ingrained stigma associated with fathers putting their careers on pause to care for their children and instil upon them the benefits of taking time out of their careers to be more involved in their children’s [lives] at an early stage.”

Evidence from across the world indicates that social changes are required if dads are to feel comfortable taking time away from their careers to focus on raising children. According to the OECD, in France, just 3.5 percent of parents that claim parental leave are men. Across Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Spain, fathers represent less than 10 percent of those making use of parental leave. Clearly, even when paternity leave is available, many men do not feel comfortable taking it.

“Most fathers are aware of the legal minimums and most companies will have a basic policy on paternity,” Hobson said. “It is well-documented and written about. However, the route to changing cultural acceptance of this being the norm runs deeper. Cultural and social changes are key to encouraging fathers to take their paternity leave entitlement and also allowing businesses to develop more attractive and enhanced policies.”

The legal changes that are boosting support for working fathers are to be applauded, but they are not enough on their own. Men with newly born children should be encouraged to take time off work by their colleagues, managers and wider social circle – for the good of the father, child and his place of work.

A two-way street
The social pressure placed upon men to forego paternity leave in order to focus on their careers is undoubtedly bad for businesses and fathers themselves, but it also has negative consequences for mothers. Offering inadequate paternity leave, or none at all, reinforces restrictive gender stereotypes for both parents: fathers as breadwinners; mothers as stay-at-home custodians.

“Gender equality works both ways and [while] we have made strides for females in the workplace who choose to have children and then continue with a career, there is a long way to go before males are afforded the same privilege,” Hobson noted. “Discouraging paternity leave reinforces the traditional view that the female is generally the primary caregiver and will not help dispel that myth for future generations.”

Research from Sweden’s Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy has shown that for every month of paternity leave a father takes, the mother’s salary is increased by 6.7 percent. Normalising and extending paternity leave lessens some of the pressure facing mothers and makes it easier for them to return to work at a time that suits them.

To create a workplace that is fair for fathers, mothers and newborns, governments must do more to encourage men to take time away from work – even if that means making more leave exclusively available to fathers. Businesses must also do more, with managers leading by example by taking time off when they gain a new family member. The only way equality will be achieved in the workplace is if neither mums nor dads feel like they have to choose between their child and their career.