Making time to care: parental leave today and tomorrow
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 14 September 2021
Work-life balance and gender equality are firmly on today’s political agenda, nationally and internationally. Key to achieving both is parenting leave, including maternity, paternity and parental leave, as well as leave for parents to care for sick children. Our new report, freely available online, provides an invaluable source of information about parenting leave, in the UK and 46 other countries.
The annual international review on leave policies is produced by a network of experts from many countries, across six continents including nearly all of Europe. As well as full details of parenting leaves in all 47 countries covered and cross-national tables, the review has information on recent developments in leave policy, take-up, the relationship between leave policies and early childhood services, plus a section on responses to Covid, covering early childhood services, schools, changes to leave policies and other support for parents.
At 645 pages, the 17th annual international review of the leave network is hard to summarise. Here are just a few tasters. What’s immediately striking is the great diversity in how countries design and implement leave policies – even between member states of the European Union, where directives set minimum standards for Maternity, Paternity and Parental leaves. Such diversity (of length, payment, eligibility, flexibility and whether or not fathers are incentivised to take leave) reflects national differences in attitudes to parenthood, childhood and gender equality.
On leave policy, the Nordic countries take the lead. This year attention focuses on Iceland, which has improved its already advanced system to give each parent six months of leave at 80% of earnings (where there’s only one parent available, she or he gets the whole 12 months). Parents can transfer only six weeks of their allocation to their partner; the remaining four-and-a-half months is a case of use it or lose it. Even before this change, most fathers (86% in 2017) took leave, averaging three months each. Attention now turns to whether that will increase in line with the new, extended period of father-only leave.
Back in 1974, Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce Parental leave, leave that gives equal rights to men and women to take time off work to care for young children. Today, Sweden offers 18 months of leave, 13 months at just below 80% of earnings; each parent has three months of leave they cannot transfer to their partner – once again, the ‘use it or lose it’ principle. But Sweden goes further than Iceland in other respects, notably the possibility of parents taking up to 120 days a year at nearly 80% of earnings to care for a sick child; few parents take anything like this much leave (the average is 10 days for mothers and 8 for fathers) – but the option is there if a child is seriously ill. Moreover, Sweden is one of very few countries where leave and early childhood services are integrated, all children being entitled to a ‘preschool’ place from 12 months.
The UK is a laggard – at least compared with European partners. Leave policy is implicitly matriarchal, eschewing gender equality for the idea that women should be the main carers of young children. For at the heart of UK policy is 52 weeks Maternity leave, the longest among countries covered by the review and the worst paid, with 46 weeks at a low flat rate or unpaid. The UK’s Parental leave is amongst the weakest, 4 unpaid months per parent, and only usable at the rate of 4 weeks per year – in Sweden, parents can choose whether to take their leave in one block or divided into several shorter blocks. True, the UK also has something called ‘Shared Parental leave’. But this turns out not to be Parental leave at all, being instead the option for mothers to transfer some of their Maternity leave to their partners, who have no individual right to this leave; unsurprisingly, few fathers take this leave or the actual Parental leave. To add to this disappointing picture, there is a gap of nearly three years between the end of well paid (Maternity) leave and the beginning of an entitlement to early childhood services, when children are three years old.
The UK has much work to do on its parenting leave policy – as, too, have many other countries. Whilst being at the extreme end of maternalistic policy design, the UK is not alone, as a significant gender gap in access to leave endures in many countries. Only seven countries of the 47 in the report offer more than two months paid leave to fathers, whereas less than four months paid leave is generally considered too short for mothers.
But a further challenge faces all countries. Looking ahead, leave policy will need to expand beyond its current focus on early parenthood. The 2019 EU Work-Life Directive not only requires member states to provide Paternity leave (something the UK already does), but also introduces ‘carers leave’, for ‘providing personal care or support to a relative’. While the standard set is modest, just 5 days per year, this points to a future direction for leave policy – developing to cover the whole life course and all forms of care, whether for children, young people or adults. (The UK government has also proposed a week of unpaid carer’s leave, which may be included in an Employment Bill likely to be introduced later this year). Belgium already has a system of ‘time credits’, a period of 12 months paid leave that workers can draw down to provide child or adult care; in earlier years, ‘time credits’ could be taken for any purpose, hinting at how leave policy might evolve to support not only care but many other non-work activities.
Leave policy is already helping many parents, as the latest annual review of the international leave network documents. It also has many future possibilities, not only encouraging more equal sharing of care responsibilities between women and men, but enabling a better relationship between paid work and the rest of life. Will post-Covid societies prove ready and able to grasp these possibilities?