Why unequal parental leave hurts everyone

By Lara Zink & Katie Squires-Thompson | The Globe and Mail| June 20, 2021
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Over the last few months, you’d be hard pressed to read the news without seeing a story about the caregiving crisis or the “she-cession” that the pandemic has created in Canada. Acknowledging these crises is important, but more important is what can be done to address them. There’s no easy answer, but here’s a great place to start: more equitable parental leave.

Unequal parental leave patterns are not new, nor can they be blamed on the pandemic. Mothers take parental leave twice as much as fathers, and when fathers do take leave, it is often for only a few days to a few weeks.

Gender inequalities in caregiving are one of the many contributing factors to gender inequality in the workplace. When the burden of child care falls entirely on women’s shoulders, this often leads to slower career progression, career downgrading, or off-ramping entirely.

For women to participate equally at work, we need to make it possible for men to participate equally at home. This means enacting the right corporate policies that give fathers the opportunity to participate equally in their children’s care.

The Benefits of Paternity Leave are Clear

Endless research has shown extensive benefits from fathers’ involvement in baby care. From reducing the risk of divorce, to strengthening the father-child bond, to increasing their partner’s health and mitigating postpartum depression – it even directly addresses the gender wage gap, women’s work force participation and career advancement. It’s a compelling case. So why aren’t more fathers taking parental leave?

Access to adequate policies and reducing negative financial implications are important steps to increasing the likelihood of men taking parental leave. Yet, many other barriers persist that discourage uptake, even when adequate policies are available. These barriers range from restrictive and outdated gender roles, a lack of role models, lower confidence and/or perceived competence as a caregiver, and a fear of negative implications on career progression.

Companies can critically examine and improve their parental leave policies and work on shifting culture and coaching people managers to incentivize uptake and reduce barriers for men.

Design better parental leave policies to give all parents the same opportunity

Implement a flexible, gender-neutral parental leave policy that offers a generous and equal amount of paid time off for all parents. Eliminate or reduce any negative financial implications of parental leave. Continue to update policies and processes as culture evolves, and as gender roles and expectations continue to change.

Tying corporate policies to Canada’s federal EI parental benefits program often disincentivizes the ‘secondary caregiver’ from taking more than five weeks leave as it eats into the birthparent’s benefits. The result: fathers take significantly shorter leaves than mothers, ultimately hurting both parents in different ways. Companies can work around this by offering paid leaves for the non-birthing parent beyond the five weeks of EI, without requiring the non-birthing parent to be on EI.

Create a supportive culture where parental leaves are normalized and embraced

Profile and celebrate role models. Implore leaders to talk openly about their parental leave experiences, why it’s important, and encourage male employees to follow suit. Doing this will slowly overturn cultural norms about what is acceptable for men. Openly celebrate and encourage all parents who take parental leave to build a supportive culture. Workplace-based campaigns, employee outreach programs and Employee Resource Groups can contribute to creating a workplace environment that fully supports the caregiving duties of all genders.

Educate on the benefits, and teach people to stop seeing caregiving as a burden

The benefits of more men taking parental leave are widely researched, but not yet widely recognized. Educate staff on the numerous benefits of parental leave for all genders.

Ensure parental leaves are a positive experience that do not hurt careers

Negative perceptions and experiences of parental leave are still widespread. A recent study in Canada’s finance industry found that 62 per cent of men and 57 per cent of women believe paternity leave has a negative impact on a man’s career. Have systems in place to assure positive experiences and reduce risk of career stagnation, such as formal transition plans pre- and postleave and guaranteeing an unaffected promotion timeline. Often, this means recognizing there is no one-size-fits-all solution and employers should work closely with each person to find an appropriate path forward.

Build a family-friendly and flexible work culture

Providing working parents with flexibility will allow them to continue to be active and engaged in their children’s lives beyond their parental leave. Empowering employees to set and control their schedules as much as possible means employees are not forced to “opt out.” From a business perspective, this will improve diversity, retention and engagement all around. Disclaimer: if only women take advantage of these accommodations, it will reinforce cultural norms and perpetuate gender inequality.

Ultimately, raising children is important work for our society, and all working parents deserve the support they need to advance and succeed in their careers and in their parenting journey. So dads, take that paternity leave.

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