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Home Opinion ‘Daddy leave’: a route to greater gender equality in housework and childcare?
Women • Childcare • Equality

‘Daddy leave’: a route to greater gender equality in housework and childcare?

Pia Schober - 09 April 2015

Leave entitlements for fathers can increase paternal involvement in housework and childcare but their longer-term impact on the gender division of labour in the home is contested

How we best provide incentives for a more equal division of domestic work between men and women has become part of the policy debate in many western countries. Growing evidence suggests that a more traditional gender division of household labour is not only associated with greater gender gaps in labour force participation, wages and life-time earnings, but in some countries also with lower probabilities of childbearing and greater risk of relationship breakdown in couples.

In recent years, the majority of European countries, including the UK, have introduced some individual child-related leave entitlements for fathers, which are not transferrable to mothers. These may take the form of specific leave entitlements only for the father (hereafter called ‘paternity leave’) or a designated proportion of the parental leave may be reserved for each partner which is otherwise lost to the family (hereafter called ‘father-leave quota’). In practice, mothers have tended to take leave for longer periods than their designated individual entitlements, whereas paternal leave take-up rates used to be very low until non-transferable leave entitlements for fathers were introduced. Particularly in combination with relatively generous compensation rates, rights to paternity leave or father-leave quotas have been found to significantly increase paternal uptake of leave and fathers’ involvement in household work during the leave period. However, most fathers who take some parental leave do so only for the designated period of the leave quota.

But whether these policies increase fathers’ involvement in childcare and housework over the longer term is a more contested question. It has frequently been suggested that some or all of the following potential factors may lead to a more equal division of domestic work between fathers and their partners in the medium or longer term: improved domestic work skills and bonds with children; changing gender role and parenting identities, such as promoting a stronger desire for fathers to spend time with their children; and reduced marketable skills and relative wages resulting in lower bargaining power.

Although we lack detailed evidence on the importance of these factors, a growing number of studies have evaluated father-leave quota reforms in Germany, Canada and Norway. These suggest that where fathers’ take-up of leave exceeds a couple of weeks a greater involvement in some aspects of domestic work by fathers and a more equal division of labour between couples in the medium- or long-term results. Most of these studies compared the childcare and housework involvement or wages of fathers with children born shortly before the reform with men who became fathers shortly after it. In a study on the introduction of a father-leave quota of two months and income-related leave compensation in Germany in 2007, I found that the time west German fathers spent on childcare increased by about half an hour per weekday in the first couple of years after childbirth. After the introduction of a five-week father-leave quota in Quebec in 2006, Patnaik found that, beyond the leave period, there was an increase in fathers’ contributions to housework but not to childcare. Kotsadam and Finseraas reported that 15 years after a Norwegian reform introducing a father-leave quota in 1993, couples who had a child shortly after the reform reported a more equal division of household tasks and less frequent conflicts over housework than respondents with children born before the reform. Rege and Solli suggested after the 1993 reform in Norway fathers’ earnings decreased significantly when allowing for a two-year phase-in period until leave by fathers had become widely used and accepted. They interpreted this as pointing to voluntary reductions in work hours and greater childcare involvement by fathers.

In light of existing evidence, the introduction of shared parental leave and pay from this month will make it easier for British fathers to take a somewhat larger share of paid leave. However, given the absence of both an individual entitlement which is otherwise lost to the family and relatively low levels of leave compensation compared to the previously evaluated countries, paternal take-up rates and consequent increases in housework and childcare involvement may be smaller. The Labour party’s proposal to extend paternity leave and pay to about £260 for four weeks is also likely to increase the take-up of leave by fathers at the time of their children’s birth and may promote their short-term involvement in unpaid household labour. Recent results from Germany, however, suggest that fathers who take leave simultaneously with the mother increase their childcare involvement less than fathers who take leave when the mother has returned to work. The fact that in the UK paternity leave has to be taken within 56 days of a child’s birth, when most mothers are also on leave, may be less effective in altering the gender division of domestic work than a well-paid leave quota for fathers which they can take later after mothers have returned to the labour market.

The German government recently passed a new law to encourage a more equal sharing of paid and unpaid work between mothers and fathers with young children. From July 2015, parents will be entitled to extended parental leave benefits (ElterngeldPlus) when working part-time during the leave as well as to a gender equality bonus. The latter seeks to encourage longer-term changes in the gender division of labour by providing four additional months of job-protected leave and parental leave pay to couples where both partners work 25 to 30 hours per week while also taking leave jointly. It remains to be seen whether these financial incentives will pave the way for greater prevalence and normative acceptance of a dual-earner/dual-carer family model where both partners work long part-time hours and share childcare while they have young children. From a gender perspective, this model might provide a promising alternative for modern societies by facilitating labour market participation and economic independence for both men and women and thereby sustaining economic growth while also promoting both parents’ long-term involvement with their children.

Pia Schober is a senior research associate at the German Institute for Economic Research


This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Social Policy and Changing Welfare States.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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