Parental leave: when working increases gender gap

Beyond traditional schemes: it is high time that both parents benefit from a gender neutral parental leave.

What is parental leave?

arental leave has recently become a widely discussed topic, especially in relation to the ongoing public debate surrounding gender equality. What is referred to as parental leave is a leave from work, taken up by parents, on the occasion of the birth of a child; this, despite being a family entitlement that can be shared between mother and father — and being it subsequent to maternity or paternity leave-, up to the present day has especially been shaped around the mother, underestimating the importance of granting a peer treatment to both parents: as a result, today the majority of workers uptaking parental leave is still mainly composed by women, whose careers suffer from longer stops.

Member States have differently approached the issue — varying between more traditional approaches and more gender equal solutions — and the EU has itself intervened with the directive EU 2019/1158. The issue has been subject to a number of innovative solutions coming from private enterprises; however, as we will see, the gap between the number of mothers and the number of fathers uptaking parental leave is still significant, bearing more than one relevant consequence.

What to expect from a shared leave

hy is an equal division of parental leave between both parents so important? Actually, a peer amount of days of leave might lead to a number of important consequences, the first group of them being of an economic nature.

In fact, more fathers uptaking parental leave would lead to a positive impact on mothers’ full time employment. This is linked to the wider problem of the gender employment gap: women, especially after having children, are less likely to re-enter the labour market.

More mothers joining the labour force, and joining it with a full-time occupation, would also reduce the female pension gap: pension gap between genders is around 40%, which is more than twice the gender pay gap; hence, parental leave uptaken by fathers would lead to less career interruptions suffered by women.

Apart from an economic progression, such a balanced solution is likely to bring social benefits as well. In fact, it would definitely enhance women’s work-life balance causing a deeper involvement of men in family life — this, in turn, leading to a better father-child bonding. Moreover, a greater involvement of the other partner in caring for family has been thought to be part of women deciding to have children — thus bringing a demographic effect as well.

Current situation in the EU. However, despite the evidence of the positive impact of a gender equal parental leave, EU Member States are still far from reaching a shared solution.

Before the intervention of the EU in 2019, the average paternity leave granted across the EU was 12.5 days, ranging from countries that would recognise 1 day — like Italy — to member states that would grant up to 64 working days (Slovenia).

With its 2019 Directive, the EU has stated the right for fathers across the Union to be entitled to a paternity leave of at least 10 days, to be taken on the occasion of the birth of the worker’s child, and regardless of their marital status. In addition, the EU recognizes the individual right to parental leave of four months, that is to be taken before the child reaches the age of eight. At the end of these four months, workers have the right to return to their job. According to another crucial point of the directive, Member States shall ensure that workers who exercise their right to leave, receive a payment: this is particularly relevant, especially because one of the main reasons of fathers not uptaking parental leave was it not being paid at all.

Apart from the EU Directive, the importance of a gender neutral split of parental leave has been understood and put in practice through a plurality of measures — both of private and public nature.

The most impressive example of a public measure aimed at improving peer parent-child bonding while promoting the chance for mothers to rejoin the labour market after childbirth can be found in Sweden: swedish parents are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave; each parent has the individual right to 90 of those days — and the remaining ones can be freely split between the two parents.

Some private corporations have as well tried to adjust their policy in a way that takes into account both parents’ needs: RWE, a german multinational energy company, created a company kindergarten and offer on site day-care mothers for their employees; the same company grants the right for workers that take parental leave to be re-employed at least at an equivalent position. With regards to the compensation aspect, norwegian company HÅG offers a 42 weeks parental leave paid full salary; finally, Volvo has recently announced that it will increase paid parental leave up to six months regardless of gender.

Well, but still not enough

ven if the problem of a gender neutral parental leave seems to be entering society’s connective tissue, the path is still long. Almost half of all european women thinks that parental leave will negatively affect their career; and because of the pay gender gap, men are less encouraged in taking a leave, being their work the main source of income of a family.

What often is underestimated is that the problem regards both parents: from the one hand, fathers do have the right to spend time with their newborn, finally getting over the traditional breadwinner model; on the other, making women uptake the majority — if not all — of the parental leave causes their career to significantly slow down and, sometimes, forces them to definitely give up on their occupation.

In fact, if frome the one hand women are biologically in need of some period of time useful for recovering from childbirth and for breastfeeding, on the other hand this period of time should not be excessively prolonged. Overextending the period of leave — which in the EU, for mothers, is generally between 12 and 18 weeks long — without sharing in with the other partner is, from more than one viewpoint, one of the main causes of difficulties for women in reaching apical positions and affects female employment rates.

It is therefore desirable that Member States keep improving their domestic legislation, pushing their policies even beyond what stated in the EU directive: gender gap is still far from being solved, and involves a number of different facets. Gender neutral parental leave is one of them; so it is important for States to take action with all their commitment.

by Aureliano Morabito

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