23. Supporting equal parenting: Paid parental leave

Jonas Fluchtmann

Employment-protected paid leave entitlements are a major feature of family policy in OECD countries. Administered through maternity, paternity, parental and home-care or childcare leaves, these entitlements are designed to protect infants and mothers around childbirth, to give both parents the necessary time to provide childcare during the early stages of life of a new-born, and ensure that fathers and mothers are financially supported during their time on leave and can return to work afterwards (Rossin-Slater, 2017[1]). In line with the 2013 OECD Gender Recommendation, paid leave is also increasingly being used to promote gender equality and a more equal division of unpaid care and housework within families, by incentivising fathers to spend more time at home caring for their children (OECD, 2017[2]).

Almost all OECD countries provide national or federal paid maternity and paternity leave programmes around childbirth to mothers and fathers (for same-sex couples, they generally provide paid leave for the biological or adoptive parent and sometimes also for her/his partner; see Box 23.1), though the extent of these entitlements varies in terms of duration and payment. Such entitlements usually grant paid and employment-protected leave of absence for employed parents directly around the time of childbirth as well as the first few months thereafter. For health and safety reasons, maternity leave is often (at least in part) compulsory for new mothers in the weeks before and after birth, while paternity leave is often, though not always, voluntary for fathers. In some countries, both entitlements are integrated into the parental leave scheme, so that there is no separate regulation for paid maternity and paternity leave. In this chapter, any specific entitlement to be taken directly around childbirth is treated as maternity/paternity leave – e.g. in Australia, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal and Sweden; see notes to Figure 23.1 and the OECD Family Database, Indicator PF2.1 (OECD, 2022[3]).

Across the OECD, statutory rights to paid maternity leave are provided with an average length of 18.5 weeks as of April 2022 (Figure 23.1, Panel A), ranging from 43 weeks in Greece (the longest entitlement) to none in the United States – the only OECD member with no national provision of paid maternity leave, though a handful of states provide entitlements to paid family leave and/or income support during maternity leave in their state-level legislation (Adema, Clarke and Frey, 2015[4]; Gatenio Gabel et al., 2022[5]). On average across OECD countries that base payments on gross earnings (see note to Figure 23.1), mother’s previous income is replaced for 14.2 full-rate equivalent weeks, i.e. the length of the paid leave in weeks if it were paid at 100% of previous gross earnings. Seventeen countries replace previous income fully for average earners throughout maternity leave – of which 14 countries base replacement on gross earnings and three on net earnings.

Most OECD member countries also provide statutory rights to paid paternity leave, but with 2.3 weeks on average, these entitlements are much shorter than for maternity leave (Figure 23.1, Panel B). Spain grants the longest entitlement, providing fathers with up to 16 weeks of paid paternity leave with full income replacement for the average earner – more than three times as long as in Portugal (5 weeks), the second in the list. Across the OECD countries that base payments on gross earnings, fathers are on average entitled to 1.4 full-rate equivalent weeks. Four OECD countries do not provide more than a week of paid birth leave to fathers and nine do not provide any paid paternity leave at all.

In addition to paid leave entitlements for fathers and mothers directly around childbirth, many countries also grant parents paid parental leave and/or home-care leave, which allows fathers and/or mothers to take longer periods of paid employment-protected leave to care for their children during their first years of life. The payments associated with paid parental leave are often lower than for maternity and paternity leave, and the last part of extended leave periods, e.g. home-care leave generally involves a low flat-rate payment. The average entitlement to paid parental leave and/or home-care leave in the OECD is about 39 weeks, Finland provides 148.5 weeks of (mainly) home-care leave, while 11 countries do not provide for parental leave/home-care leave at all. The longest entitlement to paid parental leave and/or home-care leave is available in Finland, which grants 148.5 weeks to parents, more than two-thirds of which are home-care leave (Figure 23.1, Panel C).

Only Estonia and Slovenia fully replace the previous gross income of average earners on the parental leave portion typically taken by mothers (OECD Family Database). In Belgium and France, for example, parents receive a flat rate payment that is less than a quarter of previous income for average earners. Despite equal individual entitlements for both parents, this can discourage take-up of paid parental leave by fathers, who typically earn higher wages.

Paid parental leave is most often a family-based entitlement, meaning that at a given period only one parent is entitled to income support. To encourage increased parental leave take-up by men, some countries have reserved non-transferable periods of parental leave for exclusive use by mothers and/or fathers on a “use it or lose it” basis. These schemes are widely used in the Scandinavian countries, except for Denmark, which introduced a father quota in 1997 but abolished it in 2002 (even though it was reintroduced in late 2022). As a result, Danish fathers show lower take-up of parental leave relative to other Nordic countries, despite comparably strong societal preferences for gender equality (Rostgaard and Ejrnæs, 2021[6]). Other countries, such as Austria, Canada and Germany, have introduced “bonus” weeks, which offer additional weeks of paid leave if both parents use a certain portion of the family entitlement. If the family wishes to maximise the total length of the paid leave, this implies that a certain number of weeks are effectively “reserved” for fathers or partner. Parent-specific paid parental leave periods usually last for a couple of months, though both Japan and Korea provide fathers and mothers with around one year of non-transferable paid parental leave each (Figure 23.1, Panel C).

While non-transferable periods of parental leave can, in theory, lead to a shared provision of care over the first years of a child’s life, mothers still use most paid parental leave entitlements in OECD countries. Indeed, except for Luxembourg, men are less likely to take up parental leave than women across all OECD countries for which data is available. In countries where data is available, women also take parental leave for substantially longer periods ((OECD, 2022[3]), OECD Family Database, Indicator PF2.2). In Luxembourg, most fathers take leave on a partial basis (e.g. one day a week), whereas most women leave-takers take full-time parental leave, if they do not return to work upon completion of maternity leave (Berger and Valentova, 2022[7]).

There are multiple reasons for these patterns. For example, men still have higher average incomes than women, which creates economic incentives for families to divide parental leave-taking in such a way that fathers minimise their time out of work, unless previous earnings are fully replaced (Marynissen et al., 2019[8]; Kaufman, 2017[9]). In addition, societal attitudes regarding mothers and fathers roles surrounding childcare and unpaid work are persistent and contribute to low uptake of parental leave by fathers (Li, Knoester and Petts, 2021[10]; Agerström, Carlsson and Erenel, 2023[11]).

Evidence suggests that paid parental leaves carries substantial benefits, not just for parents but also for children and families, without noticeable negative effects for their employers and co-workers. Maternity and parental leave following childbirth carry positive effects for both mothers and children. Recent evidence suggests that that paid maternity leave is significantly linked to better physical and mental health for mothers and their children as well as a higher likelihood of breastfeeding, which also carries positive long-term effects on child development (Van Niel et al., 2020[12]). Paid leave can also support female employment, increase maternal employment continuity, and promote labour market re-entry after childbirth, at least up to a point (Canaan et al., 2022[13]). Nevertheless, extensions of leave entitlement do not seem to improve women’s likelihood to make it to the top in companies and have no impact on gender gaps in hours and pay (Corekcioglu, Francesconi and Kunze, 2022[14]). Maternal leave-taking can also have negative consequences for women’s human capital development and career progression, especially when leave entitlements and actual leave-taking are excessively long (Canaan et al., 2022[13]).

The prevailing social norms regarding female leave-taking create important trade-offs for mothers. For example, women on maternity leave tend to be seen as less competent at their workplace, while mothers who do not take maternity leave are seen as “bad parents” (Morgenroth and Heilman, 2017[15]). Firms that have few internal substitutes available may also hire fewer women of childbearing age (Huebener, Jessen and Oberfichtner, 2022[16]). Nevertheless, maternal leave-taking does not seem to carry negative effects for co-workers and firms’ performance, even for small ones, as most firms are efficient in compensating for temporary absence (Brenøe et al., 2021[17]). However, unanticipated leave of absence, for example through the extension of paid leave entitlements, can negatively affect co-workers stress levels, firm survival and the retention of mothers on leave for smaller firms (Gallen, 2019[18]; Ginja, Karimi and Xiao, 2020[19]).

Despite their low average leave take-up across the OECD, fathers’ leave-taking also comes with a range of benefits. For example, paternity leave can positively influence mothers’ employment rates, while leaving the labour market attachment of fathers unaffected (Farré and González, 2019[20]; Rønsen and Kitterød, 2014[21]). Fathers’ leave-taking is also linked to their higher involvement in unpaid work within their family, both for childcare and regular housework, an effect which persists well beyond the years of actual leave-taking (Tamm, 2019[22]; Knoester, Petts and Pragg, 2019[23]). This increased involvement additionally improves the communication and closeness between children and fathers (Petts, Knoester and Waldfogel, 2019[24]). At the same time, there are noticeable and positive peer affects when male co-workers take parental leave (Carlsson and Reshid, 2022[25]). The availability of reserved leave for fathers also increases the overall life satisfaction for both parents, but particularly for mothers (Korsgren and van Lent, 2022[26]). As such, policies that encourage fathers’ uptake of paternity and parental leave could weaken the stubbornly persistent gender norm regarding paid and unpaid work in the long run and improve family well-being by strengthening father-child relationships.

Over the past years, many countries have improved their paid leave policies and strengthened the incentives for fathers to take leave (see Figure 23.2 for differences in entitlement between April 2017 and April 2022), as shown by some examples reported below (Koslowski et al., 2022[27]; MISSOC, 2022[28]).

The most significant changes have been spurred by efforts of European Union (EU) countries to align with the EU directive on work-life balance (Directive 2019/1158/EU), which postulates a minimum of ten working days paternity leave for fathers as well as an individual right to four months paid parental leave (of which at least two months will be non-transferable), and whose prescriptions must be implemented by August 2022. As a result, some EU countries newly introduced paid paternity leave. For example, in 2019, Austria added a one-month job protection for their paid “family-time bonus” (Familienzeitbonus), practically acting as a paid paternity leave, and in 2018, the Czech Republic introduced a one-week paternity leave with similar conditions to their maternity leave entitlements, which was extended to two weeks in 2022. Other EU countries have noticeably increased the length of paid paternity leave entitlements. For example, Spain has gradually extended paid paternity leave from 4 weeks in 2019 to 16 weeks in 2021, and Italy extended paid paternity leave from four to ten days over the same period. The Netherlands introduced a supplemental birth leave in July 2020, which grants up to five additional weeks of paid leave for the mother’s partner. Since 2021, Greek fathers can take two weeks of paid paternity leave up from the previous two days. Other EU countries that introduced extensions of paternity leave entitlements were Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

In terms of parental leave, some EU countries introduced non-transferable rights of leave for fathers, such as Estonia, which gave fathers a non-transferable right to 30 calendar days of paid parental leave in 2020, or Greece, which introduced individual entitlements to four months of parental leave to both parents in 2021, two months of which are paid. Extension of prevailing fathers’ individual entitlements for paid parental or home-care leave was made in Ireland and Portugal, though many countries still have to make adjustments to align with the EU directive (Figure 23.2).

Other OECD member countries have also adapted their parental leave systems to encourage take-up among men. For example, Switzerland introduced a two-week paid paternity leave in 2021, granting fathers the same payment as mothers on maternity leave. In 2022, Costa Rica introduced a paternity leave of two days per week during the four weeks after the birth of the child (i.e. eight days in total). Colombia extended their paid paternity leave to two weeks at baseline in 2021, though this can be extended up to a total of five weeks, depending on the local unemployment rate, and Korea increased paid paternity leave entitlement from three to ten days in 2019. In Canada, a new employment insurance parental sharing benefit was introduced in 2019, which grants parents additional five weeks of benefits when parental leave is shared in such a way that one parent does not receive more than 35 weeks of parental benefits (under the standard parental leave option; additional 8 weeks under the extended option). In 2018, Norway extended both mothers’ and fathers’ quotas in paid parental leave from 10 to 15 weeks, with the sharable part of paid parental leave reduced to 16 weeks. Iceland gradually increased the individual entitlements for mothers and fathers between 2020 and 2021, so that each parent now has six months of available leave, while six weeks of each parents’ entitlement can be transferred to the other.

Since April 2022, there have been further reforms of parental leave systems in various countries, including Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands and the Slovak Republic.


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