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The Parent Trap

Kirsty Vass Payne explores the role of parental leave policy and childcare policy in reducing gender disparities between parents.

In the world of policy, the terms ‘fatherhood bonus’ and ‘motherhood penalty’ are used to describe the effect of having children on either parent’s respective careers. The economic impact of parenthood on each sex is substantial: men typically earn 10 to 15% more after having children compared to a decrease in income of roughly 15% for women. Even in Nordic Countries where family policies are most progressive, mothers aged 45 with a medium level of education can expect to earn just 80 to 91% of their childless counterparts’ income. While these statistics vary from country to country and between demographics, there is strong evidence that bearing children has a divergent effect on labour market participation, wages, and career progression for men and women. When attempting to tackle the impact of having children on women and their corresponding careers, policy is key. Parental leave and childcare policies have the ability to, over time, alleviate the burden of gendered roles on both parents. This allows for flexible modern family arrangements in a world that is increasingly dependent on two working parents.

It’s Daddy’s Turn

Parental leave policy is one of the few areas where unchallenged gendered norms within the law remain. These policies typically favour longer leave for women, with a low level of paid leave for fathers. In the UK, fathers get roughly 7 days of leave. Even in countries where there is provision of generous paternity leave, there is a large gap between what is offered and what is taken by fathers. For example, in Belgium, only 5.8% of fathers made use of parental leave in the first 2 years following the birth of their first child. Even in Sweden, only 48.5% took leave beyond the leave specifically allocated for them, leaving all the shared leave for their partners. These speak to the larger societal norms that continue to perpetuate the role of women as primary caregivers. This begs the question: what role does policy have in preserving or challenging the current situation?

A popular policy design implemented to promote gender equality is the so-called ‘Daddy Months’. There are periods of leave specifically allocated to fathers to encourage uptake of paternity leave. These months have showcased the ability to change societal behaviours by encouraging fathers to take a larger share of childcare responsibilities. The power of such a policy is demonstrated in Norway. In the 1990s Norway, less than 4% of working fathers took time off work to look after their children. To tackle this, the Norwegian government implemented the statutory provision of 4 weeks assigned paternity leave only for dads. Paternity leave uptake subsequently skyrocketed to 90% in just 20 years. The policy was so effective that leave time has since been extended to 12 weeks for fathers.

Studies on ‘Daddy Months’ show that fathers who use this time experience less parenting stress and a better work-life balance than their counterparts, spending 4 hours a week less at work. The success of this policy design in increasing fathers’ participation in their children’s care demonstrates the important role of policy in changing societal norms. Similar policies implemented in Iceland and Quebec have had equally impactful levels of success in increasing parental leave uptake. Such policies have the power to change societies’ conceived notions of gendered childcare and are a necessary step towards equalising the workings of parenthood.

Returning to Work

When considering parental leave and uptake, it is vital to consider household income and the role it plays in perpetuating gender norms. If women are offered extended paid leave and men are not, it isn’t usually financially viable for families if men take the unpaid leave as it would have a more substantial impact on household earnings. The gendered pattern of these individual decisions is reflected in higher levels of parental leave uptake in equal or women ‘breadwinner’ households versus a lower uptake in men ‘breadwinner’ households within Sweden.

There is a clear relationship between wageearning and the division of housework and care. Those who earn less, usually take on a larger role in childcare and housework. The impact of children and subsequent leave, at reduced or no pay, leaves women with reduced bargaining power, thereby leading to an increase in their respective housework. Once household norms have been set, this power relationship is hard to reset, leaving those with a lower income taking on the brunt of domestic duties. Research shows that it is financially beneficial for both parties for women to return to the workplace. Men taking longer parental leave is proven to increase household income over time through the increased likelihood of the woman’s return to the labour market and thus the maintenance of a two-income household .

Existing parental leave policy can perpetuate mother-oriented norms, as seen in the context of the UK. Here, statutory paid paternity leave policies are 6 weeks at 90% pay for women followed by 33 weeks at £145.18, and one or two weeks for men paid at £145. Whilst both parents can take parental leave past this point, it is unpaid. Unsurprisingly, parental The Parent Trap Kirsty Vass Payne explores the role of parental leave policy and childcare policy in reducing gender disparities between parents. We’re all in this Together leave uptake by fathers is extremely low past the point of payment. After childbirth, women in the UK take significantly longer leave from the labour market than their male counterparts, and many do not return. The role of household income in influencing men’s decisions to return to the labour market earlier cements women’s roles as carers within UK society. For a policy to move past gendered child rearing expectations, it must endeavour to encourage both parents to take leave and to enable more equal divisions of domestic duties post-childbirth. This in turn redistributes bargaining power within the household and lessens the impact of having children on women’s careers.

Who’s Looking After the Child?

The effects of child-rearing on parents go beyond the debate over paternity leave. Caring responsibilities are mainly left to mothers, and as such, even if women do remain in the labour force after childbirth, the burden of childcare greatly influences mothers’ careers. For instance, the gender pay gap in the UK for women between 18 and 39 is very small (just over 1%) compared to the much larger gender pay gap of 12.3% among women aged 40 and above. This is likely due to the influence of children on women’s wages. The time cost of caring, or any subsequent children, have a large impact on a mother’s career progression. Pairing generous paternity leave policies with affordable and flexible childcare models helps decrease the impact of childcare on women’s careers. Quebec has been viewed as the model for such innovative policy since it implemented free universal childcare in 1996. The government’s radical reform was based on the premise that if childcare was accessible and affordable, more women would be able to join the workforce and would therefore raise revenue for the government through an increased payroll tax. Since the beginning of the program, the rate of women in the workforce between the ages 26 and 44 has reached 85%, which is the highest in the world. However, even with universal childcare and generous paternity leave, motherhood in Quebec still negatively affects women’s income. It is clear that even when there are policies in place to help women return to the work, the child penalty perseveres.

Paternity leave policies and childcare policies can be instrumental in changing social norms which punish women in their careers for having children whilst rewarding fathers. The influence of well-designed policies is not to be underestimated, as examples of well-implemented family policies show both uptake in parental leave rates of fathers as well as workforce participation of mothers. It is important to note that despite the implementation of strong parental leave and childcare policies, the childhood penalty persists. Recent research has shown that even in countries like Denmark and Sweden that have progressive family policies, women face a 20 to 25% penalty on earnings compared to men 10 years after the birth of their first child. Family policies are crucial in improving women’s workplace participation and reducing the gender wage gap. Yet, policy can only go so far in terms of diminishing the impact of ingrained gender norms.

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