Gone are the days when it was just women who were expected to raise children and take care of the family. The cultural context around paternity leave is changing and worldwide 90 out of 187 countries now offer statutory paid paternity leave. In Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, men’s use of parental leave is increasing overall although the number of days taken is still fairly minimal. Why? In the Netherlands, researchers found out that men fear it will damage their career or it is something they cannot afford to do.
‘Are you sure you have to leave now?’ Arne Breepoel’s boss asked when he announced that his wife was in labour while he was at work. Reactions such as that of Breepoel’s boss are unfortunately quite common.
“It is still very much ingrained in our culture that taking care of and raising children is women’s business,” says Ilze Smit, the campaign manager at Rutgers, an international center of expertise on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) founded and based in the Netherlands.
According to a study undertaken by the center, although fathers are becoming increasingly involved in raising their children, there is still a significant gap to bridge. In the Netherlands, only 11% of all working fathers take parental leave which allows them to temporarily work less during the first eight years of their child’s life whereas the percentage of parental leave taken is twice as high for mothers. In addition, men generally do not work less following the birth of the first child with nine out of 10 fathers continuing to work the same number of hours. Women are much more likely to adjust their working hours when they become mothers and one year after birth, 67% of women work part-time.
Part-time in the kitchen
Arne Breepoel is a chef. When his daughters were born, he indicated that he would like to work less in order to take care of them.
“But working part-time is really not an option in the kitchen,” he says so Breepoel decided to quit his job and now works in the kitchen of a healthcare institution. “My wife works full time and I work 20 hours a week. That’s really perfect. I can spend a lot of time with my daughters, who are now 5 and 9, and my current boss is always empathetic when something goes wrong with my children. That’s what I’m looking for: I’m there for my boss and he’s there for me.”
More economic benefits
According to the World Bank, “ensuring that mothers and fathers have adequate paid leave for the birth of a child should be a priority for economic development, lowering the infant mortality rates, offering health benefits for the mother, increasing the female labor force participation and breastfeeding rates”.
Paternity leave also has a wide range of benefits. Researchers have linked fathers’ use of leave with increased earnings for the mother, reduced mother-absenteeism due to sickness, and higher female employment in private firms. Between 2017 and 2019, 16 countries improved legal protections for parents.
“There really needs to be a different work culture,” says Smit, from SRHR. “Why are women talking about working less after the birth of a child and not men? In this way, you maintain inequality in the labor market.”
However, there is some good news to report.
“If we compare the results from the 2015 report with those from 2019, you can see that there is more attention from the media, politics, society, and within relationships for involved fatherhood,” says Smit. “In the Netherlands, for example, fathers have been able to take five weeks of additional birth leave and receive 70% of their wages since 1 July 2020.”
Take it or leave it
Thirty-eight-old David, who does not want to be called by his real name, also realized the importance of involved fatherhood. When his son was born more than a year ago, he decided to resign from the accounting firm where he worked.
“The work I did there could not be combined with caring for a child,” he explains. “In busy periods you were sometimes there until 9 to 10 o’clock in the evening. I didn’t want that: I didn’t feel like coming home when my son was already asleep.” David resigned. “I had saved up and was able to take five months off when my baby was born,” he says.
Initially, he wanted to go freelancing but during his ‘leave’ he was approached by a large investment bank.
“I said, ‘I’d be happy to work for you, if you allow me to work 4 days a week, for 9 hours per day. The bank manager had to get used to the idea – I’d be the only one on my team with this schedule – but eventually agreed. Because it was a new position, I didn’t find it difficult to stand my ground. For me, it was take it or leave it.”
On average across OECD member countries, mothers are entitled to just over 18 weeks of paid maternity leave around childbirth. In line with both the International Labour Organization convention on maternity leave and the current European Union directive on maternity leave, almost all OECD countries provide mothers with at least 14 weeks’ leave around childbirth.