How Can Europe Encourage Fathers to Take Parental Leave?


Oct 14, 2016

YYoung father holding his baby

Photo by Odua Images/Fotolia

This commentary originally appeared on New Europe on October 13, 2016.

In most European countries, working fathers can take parental leave, which is offered to both mothers and fathers, and paternity leave, which is just offered to fathers. The take-up of parental and paternity leave by fathers is thought to be associated with the improved development of the child. It also helps to promote a more gender equal sharing of childcare at home and the mother's return to the labour market.

Paternity leave for working fathers is offered in 18 of the 28 EU member states, with the length of time being short—around 12.5 days on average. Most of these countries also offer 100 per cent income compensation for fathers on paternity leave.

However, parental leave is notably different. It does not have to be taken immediately after birth by either parent—for mothers parental leave can be taken after maternity leave. Parental leave is also longer, but largely uncompensated. Perhaps most importantly, the uptake of parental leave by working fathers is low. In 23 EU member states, on average, only 10 per cent of fathers took up parental leave in 2015.

RAND Europe explored the reasons for the low take-up of parental leave by fathers across Europe. Three key factors emerged: a lack of income compensation offered to working fathers; a lack of flexibility as to when parental leave is taken; and the culture of their workplace.

Our research shows that countries that provide the highest compensation rates have the highest proportion of employees taking parental leave. Working fathers on middle-to-high incomes are more likely to take parental leave, simply because they can afford it. Those on lower incomes are less likely to take parental leave. Parental leave eligibility in many countries is also conditional on the length of employment for working fathers (usually a year or more) and whether they are on full-time or part-time contracts. In many cases, those on part-time contracts are on a lower income and less likely to take leave.

Flexibility in the timing of the parental leave is another important factor in its uptake by fathers. Such factors include when it is taken (e.g. at what point during a child's lifetime), its distribution (e.g. all at once or in separate periods) and whether it is taken full or part time. A lack of flexibility can often deter fathers from taking their parental leave.

Although harder to quantify, workplace culture plays a role in determining uptake of parental leave by fathers. Companies that offer flexible working hours, options to increase or decrease working hours, or have work-life balance arrangements, such as crèches and babysitting, as part of their workplace culture are more likely to have male employees that take up parental leave. Such commitments towards a work and family life are seen as important signals by fathers that it is acceptable to take parental leave.

A number of policies in EU countries have aimed to encourage the uptake of parental leave by fathers. These are often “use it or lose it” initiatives or financial incentives. The uptake of paternal leave by working fathers in Sweden has doubled after cash bonuses were provided for parents if parental leave is equally divided between parents and part of parental leave was reserved specifically for fathers. Germany also experienced a rise after reserving a specific part of parental leave for fathers—a rise from 3.3 per cent in 2006 to 29.3 per cent in 2012.

The take-up of parental leave does appear to be driven by economic factors, such as a lack of compensation, but flexibility of when the leave is taken and the culture of workplaces also appear to affect take-up. The link between fathers taking parental leave and improvements in the development of children makes it an important area for European policymakers to consider.

Janna van Belle is an analyst at RAND Europe.

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