Paternity Leave: An Idea Whose Time has Come

More than 80% of men in Quebec take leave after their child is born. On average they take 5 weeks. In the rest of Canada, less than 30% of fathers take leave and on average they take just over 2 weeks. There are two possible explanations for this difference: 1) men in Quebec love their children more or 2) the introduction of ‘use it or lose it’ paternity leave in 2005 provided the social and financial support that allowed fathers to spend more time with their new children.

I’m going with option two.

It is clear not only from the Quebec experience but also from the experience of many European countries that paternity leave works. What makes it work? Qualitative studies find that the number one reason why men don’t take paternity leave is social pressure from colleagues. The ‘use if or lose it’ nature of paternity leave creates the space for men to say, ‘well, I have to take this, or we lose out.’

The other factor that determines the success of paternity leave is the level of wage replacement offered. In countries where the policy was implemented with a very low wage replacement rate (think 15% of your salary) the take up was very low. This speaks to the real financial need of most families and to the pressure on men to be the breadwinner of the household.

The Quebec program solves both of these problems by setting aside 5 weeks ‘just for men’ and replacing up to 70% of the leave-taker’s wages. And in case you were wondering: the share of women taking parental leave in Quebec actually rose slightly after the introduction of paternity leave. So, no one is replacing mom. This is about everyone spending time together.

There are multiple benefits to men spending more time with their newborn child. First, the fact that so many fathers are taking this leave where it is available suggests that, yes, men really do want to spend time with their children. There is clearly an unmet need here.

But there are other benefits to paternity leave. When fathers spend more time at home, household and childcare tasks are more likely to be shared between parents—particularly in male-female households. This is currently not the case—on average women perform an additional 10 hours of unpaid work each week. While household chores have been increasingly shared by men and women over the past two decades, childcare has not.

Norway has had paternity leave since 1993. Studies of the Norwegian experience have found positive benefits to children as well as parents. Greater engagement in a child’s first months of life appears to contribute to more ongoing engagement with children and this results in better performance in school.

Paternity leave isn’t going to change the world. It isn’t a replacement for universal, affordable childcare. But as families try to balance financial pressures with the 24/7 demands of a new child, this policy could provide a little extra time for new fathers and little extra help for new mothers.

Who couldn’t use that?

We recognize that families take many forms and that not all families have heterosexual, cis-gendered parents. Parental leave could benefit the non-birth parent in many different families. The analysis above focuses on the role that parental leave could have on the gendered inequality of unpaid household labour between men and women. 

Kate McInturff is a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. You can follow Kate on Twitter @katemcinturff

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