Transforming the idea of fatherhood – California’s experience with paid parental leave

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

Photo Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

While federal paid parental leave or paid paternity leave is still elusive in the United States, states such as California have moved ahead and are now offering mothers as well as fathers the ability to stay at home with their newborn children – while not having to sacrifice their paycheck. Yet this welcomed policy change in California cannot hide the fact that the United States continues to be a laggard in the area of parental leave and is now the only industrialized country which does not offer such benefits (Spurlock 2013).

Sure, as this article suggests paid parental leave also encourages fathers to stay home. However, other countries – notably in Scandinavia – have moved beyond giving fathers the opportunity to stay at home and pushed policy models that would ensure fathers’ involvement in the care of their children with gentle force. Noway was the first country to establish a father quota in 1993 and other countries soon followed, most notably Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden. Under this policy model, a certain period of the overall period of parental leave is reserved for the use of the father alone. For example, Iceland reserves three months of the 9 months parental leave for fathers (3 months for mothers, 3 months for dads, and 3 months for either parent). If fathers don’t take the leave, parental leave is shorten to 6 months total. The plan is to gradually roll out the model to a 4-4-3 and then 5-5-2 model.

Other countries, mainly in continental Europe and Japan, have established a different model  – father leave incentives – which still shares the same goal as the father quota but tries to capture the interest of fathers through a bonus system. For example, Germany introduced a father leave incentive which gives families where the father takes at least two months of parental leave, an additional two months of paid parental leave benefits. Thus, if the father stays at home with his child, the total period of paid parental leave is extended from 12 to 14 months.

The desire to have men participate more in the raising of their children, especially in the early years, is not a new trend; the male breadwinner model – male breadwinner and female homemaker – has been questioned since the 1970s. Yet it is only since the early 1990s that we see policies that actively try to change these care relations. One of the arguments put forward is that encouraging fathers to stay at home will increase father-child bonding and fathers’ engagement in the raising of their children. Most importantly though, changing care relations in the home is also an important step towards greater gender equality overall. While women continue to crack the glass ceiling in the corporate world, in politics, and elsewhere, we also see women dropping out or slowing down their careers to combine family and work life. As it is still true today, working women are carrying the double burden:  unpaid care responsibilities for children and the elderly as well as domestic chores in addition to their careers. This of course then leads to discriminatory hiring and promotion practices where men are seen as the safer bet because they are less likely to drop out the workforce or leave work early to care for family members or buy groceries. Men seem to be more committed to their work and career than women are and thus are more likely to be hired and promoted especially for positions of influence and power which require a strong commitment to the job.

All these policies, be it offering paid parental leave to both men and women, father quotas or father incentives, are a step towards changing a workplace culture that demands full commitment, long and many hours, and almost instant connectivity and that assumes that women cannot commit fully to their work responsibilities due to their care responsibilities at home. Only when fathers are encouraged and allowed to take up more care responsibilities and only when it becomes commonplace that fathers take career breaks to care for their children, we can expect to truly level the playing field between men and women in the workforce. California has moved in the right direction but much still remains done. One is to introduce a paid parental leave scheme on the federal level extending the same kinds of opportunities to fathers everywhere in the United States.

See: Daddy’s Home! In California a growing number of fathers are taking advantage of paid parental leave

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