How to start the discussion about parental leave.
The game changing aspect of parental leave is that it can be taken by both parents, not only mothers. Maternity leave exists for women to recover from pregnancy and childbirth – but there is no reason why fathers and mothers can not engage equally in childcare after this inicial period. Each family has its own arrangements and realities, and keeping only women away from work is not necessarily the best option in all cases. Moreover, leaves that are exclusive for women assume that only mothers have responsibilities and duties towards their children - and end up perpetuating traditional gender roles from start on. The important thing is that parents are given a choice. The division of time should also be flexible: if a couple has a right to eight months of parental leave, for example, they can choose to share it as four months each – or 6 months for one parent and 2 for the other, and so on.
Simply extending the period of maternity leave does not have the same effects as creating parental leave. Very long leaves - more than one year of maternity leave, for example - can make it difficult for women to get back to work(1) and increase discrimination against young female workers. In addition, it reinforces gender division of labour: it is harder to establish an equal division of childcare if the mother has already been doing most part of caregiving since day one. "If you talk about child development and women’s laborforce participation, I would say that one year of paid parental leave is good. Its reasonable and good for the society. But after that it doesn' have the same impact", says Katharina Spieß, an professor of family economics at Freie Universität Berlin and at Deutsches Institut for Wirtschaftsforschung.
Parental leave should not take away women's right to stay with their children, it only allows families to choose the best arrangements for themselves. In turn, fathers get the opportunity to be present during the first months of their children’s lives - one of the most unique experiences in life - which is currently impossible considering the short paternity leaves available in most countries. The same rights are to be extended to homossexual couples, adoptive parents and other family constellations.
This is probably the most important measure regarding gender equality. When parents are given the opportunity to choose who will stay home when a child is born, in most cases, it is still the woman who takes the leave. But when parents are given extra time if (and only if) both parents take parental leave, men's participation skyrockets.
That's what happened in Germany, for example. In 1984, the government allowed men and women to choose who would take parental leave - but very few fathers volunteered. Until 2006, only 3% of men spent some time away from work. This changed in 2007, when Germany created the so-called "partner months" (Partnerschaftsmonate): two extra months of paid leave when both parents apply for the benefit. If only the mother goes on leave, the bonus is lost. Soon, men’s participation was ten times higher: today, 36% of men take parental leave. No wonder the measure is often called "father’s quota" or "daddy's months”. "After the 2007 reform, we can say that social norms have really changed for fathers in Germany," says Katharina Wrohlich, economist ate the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW).
In Sweden, where the quota exists since the 1990s, 90% of men take parental leave. "When the government created the daddy's months, men started using it overnight," says Ann-Zofie Duvander, a professor of demography at Stockholm University. When men’s participation rates are that high, it is safe to assume that basically every worker will go into parental leave if they have children. This means that it is pointless to discriminate against women in reproductive years in job interviews, because every single person will be absent from work at some point. Currently, the daddy quota in Sweden is three months, but a recent study recommended for it to be increased to five months.
"I think it's good to have a father's quota, because this really has a big impact on society, and i think it should be slowly increased in Germany", says prof. Katharina Spieß.
Parental leave should not replace maternity leave, but follow it. Maternity leave before and after childbirth is essential for a mother’s wellbeing and to prevent health issues – as well as for creating good conditions for breastfeeding. This period, however, does not need to be extremely long and can shortly be replaced by unisex leave. In Germany, maternity leave consists of 6 weeks before the birth and 8 weeks after. In Norway, it is 13 weeks of compulsory leave, and in Portugal only 6. After this time, both parents are allowed to take parental leave. It is important to say that this is not the total period that mothers can stay home - only the ones they have to.
In Brazil, only women have a right to take some time off from work when they have babies (which is bad), but they keep 100% of their income during maternity leave (which is good). In Germany, for example, parents get between 65% and 67% of their income during parental leave, with a tap of 1,800 euros. In Sweden, the leave is up to 16 months at 80% of the salary(2). The general recommendation, however, is that parental leave should be fully paid(3) to increase participation rates. This avoids, of course, a drop in the standard of living and ensures financial stability for families and babies. But it also encourages the involvement of fathers. All around the world, men earn more than women (the so-called gender pay gap: in Brazil women earn 24% less than man, and in Germany 21%). If the leave is not fully paid, it is usually taken by the partner who earns less, to avoid economic losses. That means, of course, women.
In Brazil, maternity and paternity leave are only extended to workers with regular job contracts - which excludes more than 40% of the economically active population, who work in informal arrangements. But both informal and unemployed workers need financial security when a child arrives. In Germany, parental leave can also be requested by those who are not employed or who do not pay taxes. There, all parents can take leave and receive 300 euros for at least 12 months - which is well below the minimum wage, at around 1,500 euros.
In 2015, 70% of Brazilian children were being raised inside of “traditional families”, aka parents + children. That means that almost 30% of children in Brazil are raised exclusively by their mothers or other women (since only 3,6% of men take care of their children by themselves). Father absence is also high: 5,5 million Brazilian children don’t have their dad’s name on their birth certificates.
Unfortunately, fathers are not always available or interested in participating in the upbringing of children. In practical terms, it makes sense to adopt a model of "caregivers" instead of "parents" for parental leave. The idea is that other family members or close friends could ask for a leave to take care of a new baby. Grandparents, of course, would be the main beneficiaries of this change. In Germany, for example, grandparents can take parental leave if the children's parents are under the age of 18, if they are still studying, or if neither of them takes parental leave. In the event of the death or serious illness of the parents, other relatives can also claim the benefit. Sweden is considering extending its parental leave model to any person nominated by the parents and who actually takes care of the child.
Almost half of Brazilian women have left their jobs when their children reach the age of two, in most cases because they were dismissed. There is a peak in layoffs four months after childbirth - precisely at the end of maternity leave and of the job security that comes with it. In order to prevent companies from dismissing mothers when they return to work, job security should be extended, including beyond the leave )especially in those places where the leave is still short). Children of unemployed mothers are at greater risk of living in poverty, being out of school and not having access to health care. Parent’s employment, combined with cash transfer programmes, end up playing a decisive role in children's development.
Parental leave is very important for the first months of a baby’s life - but of course, it is not the only solution for childcare. After the leave, parents should have the option of putting their children in nurseries and preschools. Childcare is also a state’s responsibility, and the return to paid work is only possible with early childhood education for all.
In Germany, for example, an increase of 1% in childcare availability raises the number of working mothers by 0.2%(4). It may not seem much, but it is important to remember that an increase of people in the labor force means a boost for the entire economy. In Quebec, Canada, day care was made available for all parents at affordable prices in the 1990s. Less than two decades later, the occupation rate of mothers with children under 5 jumped from 64% to 80%. The program was so successful that the income taxes paid by those mothers who went back to work turned out to be more than enough to compensate for the initial public investment in childcare.
1. Markus Gangl and Andrea Ziefle, "The Making of a Good Woman: Extended Parental Leave Entitlements and Mothers’ Work Commitment in Germany," American Journal of Sociology 121, no. 2 (September 2015): 511-563.
2. KOSLOWSKI, A., BLUM, S., DOBROTIĆ, I., MACHT, A. and MOSS, P. (2019) International Review of Leave Policies and Research 2019.
3. VAN DER GAAG, N., HEILMAN, B., GUPTA, T., NEMBHARD, C., and BARKER, G. (2019). State of the World’s Fathers: Unlocking the Power of Men’s Care. Washington, DC: Promundo-US.
4. Müller, Kai-Uwe and Wrohlich, Katharina, Does Subsidized Care for Toddlers Increase Maternal Labor Supply?: Evidence from a Large-Scale Expansion of Early Childcare (August 2018). DIW Berlin Discussion Paper No. 1747.
Germany is often used as a comparison in this project because the research was conducted at Freie Universität Berlin, as part of the German Chancellor Fellowship, a Alexander von Humboldt Foundation initiative.