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Want to celebrate fathers? Let’s talk about paternity leave

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Like many celebrations, Father's Day can be an enormously commercial holiday. Companies create heart-warming advertisements to market their products, ultimately hoping to drive a spike in sales. While showing fathers our appreciation with gifts is admirable, the day also gives us a chance to reflect on the important—and often overlooked—role that they play within families.

Evidence shows that fathers contribute to their children's lives in many ways, influencing social and cognitive development.  Recognizing the benefits of involved fathers, governments around the world have introduced paternity and parental leave policies. By design, some schemes (e.g. father quotas for parental leave) also aim to keep working mothers close to the labor market and increase the probability of returning to work.<

As illustrated by the 2020 update of Women, Business and the Law data, available at the World Bank's Gender Data Portal, 105 economies (out of 189 with data) guarantee at least one day of paid paternity leave for the birth of a child or reserve a portion of paid parental leave specifically for fathers through fathers' quotas. The median duration of that leave, however, is just five days. In contrast, 184 countries guarantee at least one day of maternity leave and the median length is 98 days.  Even after accounting for recovery from pregnancy and childbirth, paid leaves for fathers are in general much shorter than paid leaves for mothers.

Legislating leave, however, does not mean men will take leave. In some Nordic countries, even when men are eligible only 40% use parental leave, and the share can be as low as 2% in countries such as the Czech Republic or Poland.

Figure 1. Paid maternity vs. paternity leave

Paid maternity vs. paternity leave

Source: World Bank: Women, Business and the Law. Data extracted from Gender Data Portal.

Equally important is the role of active fathers in fostering mothers' participation in the labor market. There is extensive evidence that women have lower rates of engagement in the labor market. This is partly attributed to women's disproportionate role in caring responsibilities and gender norms that assign caring roles to women. When employed, their salaries are lower, on average, than men's. And these differences are much larger for mothers than for women without children: the gender gap in labor market outcomes is strongly correlated with motherhood.

Parental leave might be one way to help close gaps between men and women. Fathers who take more leave, relative to mothers, support the conditions for a more egalitarian division of labor in the household,  which can reduce the within-household gender gap through increasing mother's wages.

While it is difficult to establish causality (and determine if effects are explained by selection of fathers in leave or not), correlating the existence of a paternity leave policy with female labor force participation shows that in countries where fathers have the possibility to look after children after birth, female labor force participation and female employment is on average, slightly higher.

Figure 2. Women are more likely to participate in the labor market in countries where there is paid paternity leave

Women are more likely to participate in the labor market in countries where there is paid paternity leave

Source: World Bank: Women, Business and the Law; International Labour Organization, ILOSTAT database. Data extracted from Gender Data Portal.

Evidence shows that fathers taking leave have female partners who are more active in the labor market. And this impact may be causal. The introduction of two weeks of paternity leave in Spain increased fathers' involvement in childcare and led to higher labor force participation among mothers. Likewise, a 5-week "daddy quota" of leave in Quebec, Canada increased the amount of time that mothers spent in paid work and physically at the workplace. In Germany, a parental benefit giving a 'bonus' of two additional months of leave to households in which the father took at least two months off raised mothers' employment probability by up to 10%.

Of course, decisions around childcare and domestic work are taken by families. However, small tweaks in the design of parental leave schemes, such as reserving specific periods of leave for fathers, improving flexibility in leave arrangements, or increasing awareness of benefits can go a long way in influencing behavior and changing attitudes towards traditional gender roles.

Let us take Father's Day as a unique time to reflect on fathers' role in achieving gender equality and to make the case for governments and companies to find ways to meet the needs of BOTH working fathers and mothers. 


Eliana Rubiano-Matulevich

Senior Economist at the Poverty and Equity Global Practice for Latin American and the Caribbean at The World Bank

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