Shared parental leave to have minimal impact on gender equality

Shared parental leave to have minimal impact on gender equality

Shared parental leave is very unlikely to impact significantly on fathers, mothers and employers’ behaviours in the UK..


27 May 2014

Shared parental leave is very unlikely to impact significantly on fathers, mothers and employers’ behaviours in the UK, as it has not impacted across Europe.

The UK government has proposed a new legislation to make parental leave sharable with the objective to ‘challenge the old-fashioned assumption that women will always be the parent that stays at home’. The Tavistock Institute has carried out evaluation projects related to paternity, maternity and parental leave for the European Commission (DG EMPL) and for the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), as well as covered this topic in other current UK research projects. Our evaluation and research findings suggest that the ‘system for shared parental leave’ will not impact on fathers and mothers’ take up rates.

As concluded and reported previously, most recent research show that there is a massive difference in the way that men and women take up these types of leave. Most men won’t take up low paid leave or transferable part while almost all women are available to take up low paid leave, including the transferable parts of the leave, especially when other caring options are not available, as it’s the case in the UK where childcare services are not affordable for most people.

UK’s rates of payment over the parental/paternity/maternity leave are low in comparison to previous earnings, except for the first six weeks, and the current draft legislation on a new UK’s system for shared parental leave and pay will not change either the payment level or increasing the non-transferable part reserved for fathers, so no general behaviour’ changes are expected.

International research points out that the designs of paternity, maternity and parental leave impact on gender equality, but not all changes or designs have positive outcomes. The conclusions from national, comparative and international research are similar: most men only take parental or paternity leave when this labour right is non-transferable and well-paid. Moreover, gender equality is only expected to be fully supported when men and women have the same individual rights, and these rights are designed considering their current behaviour.

Innovating in policy is a great virtue. Learning from previous experiences is a must, especially in the UK, a country which leads the evidence-based approach to policy-making in the EU. From the first time that maternity leave was introduced at the end of XIX in Germany, the women’s involvement in the public arena and in labour market has drastically changed. The design and objectives of paternity, maternity and parental leave have not been modified accordingly. And there is plenty of room for change in men’s involvement in family and labour market too.

Sweden was the pioneer in reforming the maternity leave with the aim to support gender equality. In 1974, parental leave replaced maternity leave and, despite the gender neutral name and distribution (90 days for each parent in 1974), policy-makers still saw mothers as the ‘natural’ recipients of the entitlement. They created the transferability of a social security right for the first time. They expected fathers to pass their rights to mothers, an expectation which was realised1. About twenty years later, they learned from their experience and created well-paid non-transferable parental leave reserved for fathers. The ‘daddy month’, a parental leave quota for fathers introduced in 1995, worked instantly. The share of fathers who took at least one month of leave increased from 9 to 47%2. However, the current design which provides only two non-transferable months for each parent and other twelve transferable months (six for each parent that can be transferred) doesn’t encourage that mothers and fathers take similar periods of time. Fathers-to-be and fathers and mothers-to-be and mothers’ availability for the labour market and for care at home is very different yet, in legal terms and in the collective imagination. Thus, this policy does not support gender equality enough, as it is not expected to change people’s behaviour according to the research and evaluation evidence. Although the Swedish parental leave is well-paid (at 80% of previous earning), most fathers only generally take the non-transferable part, and the majority of transferable part is still generally taken by mothers, forty years after the parental leave become and individual but transferable right.

Iceland, which used to be an outlier in the Nordic context, has learned from international and its own experience of possessing the most progressive leave policy design. The current policy consists of three non-transferable months for both the father and the mother and other three transferable months (3+3+3), is soon to be replaced by a new design of five non-transferable months for the father and other five for the mother, plus two transferable months (5+5+2). Icelandic parental leave is also generally paid at 80% of previous earning, both for mothers and fathers.

Other literature and policy review has led us to understand the relevance of parental leave policy, not only in relation to gender equality, but also as an anti-poverty strategy3. Knowledge and evidence-based policy implications are available from our organisation, the EC, the World Bank, the IMF, ILO, the UN and other research and activist networks4. A better transfer of knowledge from research and evaluation to policy makers is needed to improve the labour market functioning and achieve gender equality. Moreover, policy-makers should reflect on the evidence from Sweden and Iceland to create better paid, non-transferable leave for men in order to actually achieve the objective of gender equality at the workplace and at home that they proclaim.

There is still time before implementing a law which is not expected to significantly change the current situation. With a proper design, impacts will last and appreciation on the benefits of gender equality will increase. In this regard, the Tavistock Institute wants to support this mutual reinforcing collaboration among researchers, evaluators, policy-making and other stakeholders.

To open the debate among the public and to disseminate main conclusions about parental leave system reached from evaluation and research projects, Cristina Castellanos Serrano, TIHR Senior Researcher/ Consultant, introduced a session on the parental leave system at the Institute’s Food for Thought lunchtime talk series. You can access the audio and presentation on this session on parental leave design here.

For further information please contact:
Cristina Castellanos Serrano, Senior Researcher/ Consultant.
David Drabble, Researcher/ Consultant.

1. Pazos Morán, M. (2013) Desiguales por ley. Las políticas públicas contra la igualdad de género. Catarata, Madrid.
2. Ekberg, J., Eriksson, R. and Friebel, G. (2013) ‘Parental leave – a policy evaluation of the Swedish ‘daddy month’ reform’, Journal of Public Economics, Vol. 97:131-143.
3. JRF: Anti-poverty strategies for the UK (Personal relationships and poverty) www.jrf.org.uk/work/workarea/anti-poverty-strategy
4. International Network on Leave Policies & Research www.leavenetwork.org
International Platform for Equal, Non-Transferable and Fully Paid Parental Leave (PLENT)

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