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Family leave: a means to bridge the gender gap?

  • Ireland
  • General


Joanne Hyde's article from the Sunday Business Post on 17 February.

For years, many employers have recognised the benefits of providing leave to fathers to care for their children.

Tech companies, in particular, have been known to offer paternity leave far in excess of the entitlement that arises under statute. According to numerous reports commissioned by the European Union, such flexibility in leave arrangements and in the work life balance of parents is key to achieving gender equality in the workforce.

An EU factsheet on work life balance of parents reports that, in a society where men and women take equal roles in caring responsibilities and at home, women are more likely to return to work full-time, workers are more motivated, and absenteeism levels drop. There are also economic advantages. According to the factsheet, economic loss resulting from the gender employment gap amounts to €370 billion per year. Despite these benefits, there is no legislative framework at EU level which provides for leave for new fathers.

This lack of paternity leave legislation has been identified by the EU as a contributing factor in gender differences in work and care responsibilities. And it has the data to back this up.

According to a 2017 EU Commission study on the work life balance of parents, the difference in the numbers of men and women employed without children is one percent. Between men and women with a child below six, however, the difference in these numbers jumps to 21 percent. With two children it rises to 25 percent and with three, a difference of 37 percent emerges.

A 2018 report on equality between women and men in the EU found that, in couples with young children under seven, women spend twice as long on unpaid family and home work, leaving them with a quarter less time for paid work.

These and numerous other reports and studies commissioned by the European Commission have led the commission to conclude that the current legal and institutional structure is not appropriate as it provides limited incentives for men to assume an equal share of caring responsibilities.

Accordingly, in 2017, the European Commission prepared draft proposals for a Work Life Balance Directive which, it states, will open up opportunities for working women and men to share caring responsibilities for children on an equal basis.

On January 24, the European Parliament and the European Council reached provisional agreement on key elements of the directive.

The key proposals relating to family leave are the provision of at least 10 working days of paternity leave to be paid at the same level of maternity leave and a right to four months of parental leave in respect of which two months are non-transferable between parents and which is to be paid at a level set by member states.

Ireland already provides two weeks of paternity leave paid at the level of maternity leave and so there will be no change to Irish law in that context. However, it does not have a non-transferable element in respect of parental leave. This has led to a very low uptake of parental leave by fathers. The non-transferability approach has proven to be very successful in other EU countries.

In Sweden, maternity leave was removed in the 1970s and replaced with parental leave. Each parent is entitled to 240 days of paid parental leave, out of which three months are not transferable. This 'use it or lose it' policy has resulted in 90 percent of Swedish fathers taking parental leave.

A similar approach was taken in Germany in 2007. This also resulted in the number of fathers taking parental leave rising significantly and steadily.

For births in 2014, parental leave was taken by 34.2 percent of German fathers compared to 3.5 percent in 2006, before the introduction of the new legislation.

The EU proposals also provide for the payment in respect of parental leave. Parental leave is currently unpaid in Ireland. However, in Budget 2019, the government announced plans to introduce two weeks' paid parental leave to be taken in the first year of a child's life for both parents.

The EU does acknowledge that the encouragement of men to take more family leave will increase the administrative burden and cost burden for employers initially. However, it had concluded, following a cost-benefit analysis, that the long-term benefits of closing the gender gap and increasing female participation warrants these changes.

The provisional agreement must next be formally adopted by the European Parliament and Council before it becomes law.


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