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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Parental leave: what is it for and how do we make it work?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 15 April 2019

Peter Moss.

Leave policies for parents (maternity, paternity and parental leave) are high on today’s policy agenda, not only in higher income countries but around the world. A recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) survey found all bar two countries (Papua New Guinea and the USA) had some paid maternity leave, while 79 had paternity leave and 66 parental leave.

This month, the EU is expected to adopt a new Work-Life Balance Directive, which sets a number of new or higher standards for parental, paternity and carer’s leave, and the right to request flexible working arrangements – an initiative so far ignored by the British media.

Yet despite this attention, many issues remain about how best to make leave policies effective and inclusive in a fast-changing world and to ensure they support a more equal and sustainable relationship between care, employment and gender.

These are the subjects of a new book published on April 17 – Parental Leave and Beyond: new international developments, current issues and future directions. It’s the product of a collaboration between 38 academics from 18 countries, all members of the International Network on Leave Policies and Research.

The book looks at recent developments in 8 countries from across the world, including China, Israel, Mexico and Poland. A chapter looks at why the USA remains so far behind other countries in this field, including concerns about the impact of paid leave on business, the opposition of Republican legislators, and an emphasis on individualism that leaves many thinking that work-life balance is a problem for parents alone to deal with.

A chapter on the UK, by IOE’s Margaret O’Brien and Peter Moss, highlights the dysfunctional design of leave policy in the UK – based on a very long but low paid period of maternity leave, part transferable to fathers but only with the mother’s permission – and documents the missed opportunities since 1997 to put it onto a different and more gender equal footing. The country came closest to reform in 2011 when the coalition government proposed a major rebalancing of leave, away from maternity leave and towards parental leave; but nothing came of this, opposition from some quarters persuading government to stick with the status quo.

Moral: if you start off on the wrong path, it’s hard to get back on track.

The book sets out four conclusions about current parental leave policy:

  • First, there needs to be clarity of aim. What is it for?
  • Second, policy needs to be designed to achieve this purpose. If, for example, the aim is to increase use by fathers and so promote gender equality, then you need periods of well-paid and non-transferable leave earmarked for fathers.
  • Third, attention needs to be paid to eligibility, to ensure inclusion, a growing issue as employment becomes more diverse and casualised.
  • Finally, culture matters. Well-designed and inclusive parental leave policies need to be matched by social attitudes that place high importance on gender equality and fathers’ participation in childrearing; Japan may have ‘by far the most generous paid father-specific entitlement in the OECD’, but take-up by fathers is low in a society where attitudes have yet to catch up with policy.

Why ‘beyond’ parental leave? Because though leave for parents is important, and much remains to be done in getting this policy right, it is not enough. Leave policies need to move away from a focus on early parenthood to a life course approach, which can provide an integrated system of leave provision for the care of children, young people and adults. Also, perhaps, a complementary system (modelled on the Belgium time credit system) that gives all workers an allowance of paid time off work, which can be drawn on for a variety of reasons – not only care for others, but care of the self and care of the wider community.

Leave must always be matched by other measures, including care services. To take an obvious example, most countries (including the UK) have a large gap between the end of well-paid parental leave and the start of an entitlement to early childhood education and care services. While workplace structures and culture must change to treat all workers as actual or potential carers – what Nancy Fraser calls the ‘universal caregiver model’.

Last but not least, as argued in the new book by Andrea Doucet and her Canadian colleagues, to avoid exclusions arising from eligibility conditions, future leave measures might be reconceptualised, moving away from the idea of ‘leave from work’, contingent on meeting certain conditions, to an unconditional ‘leave to care’. A leave that recognises the rights of care-givers, female and male, and care-receivers, and the importance of achieving an equal and sustainable relationship between care, employment and gender.

Way back in the 1990s, Swedes spoke of children having a legal right to have a relationship with both parents, with a strong parental leave used by fathers as one way of realising that right. Time perhaps for all of us to think of leave policy in that way.

Photo by Eli Braud via Creative Commons


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