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What do we know about gender gaps in paid family leave?

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Photo of a young father is changing his baby's diaper.
A young man is changing his baby's diaper. Photo: SUKJAI PHOTO/Shutterstock

Would you get paid leave after giving birth in your country? Would your partner have more paid days off than you? A new study uses Women, Business and the Law data from the World Bank Gender Data Portal to analyze the evolution of maternity and paternity leave across the world, covering 190 countries over 52 years. The study shows striking differences both within and between countries in how the distribution of paid family leave days for parents has evolved over the years and its correlation with women’s labor market performance.

From gender gap in paid family leave to gender gap in employment

In recent years, more countries have introduced or expanded paid paternity and parental leave policies to encourage leave uptake amongst fathers. Motivations behind such policies include reducing the gender gap in paid family leave and encouraging fathers’ involvement in childcare and altering traditional gendered patterns of household work. This could decrease the comparative advantage that women have at home and change employers’ attitudes when making gendered decisions, and ultimately reduce gender gaps in employment and wages.

Global and regional patterns of leave allocation

While there is reason to believe that both maternity and paternity leave are important for women’s labor market outcomes, we have not seen equal progress in the expansion of these two policy levers. Across the world, the number of leave days allocated to mothers has been increasing since the 1970s (when our dataset begins). On the other hand, there was almost no expansion in paternity leave until the early 2000s. Even since then, progress has been meager. In 1970, only 13 out of the 190 countries covered granted leave to fathers for the birth of a child. By 2021, 114 countries had policies in place granting leave to fathers, but the global average number of days for fathers is currently 21 days, compared to an average of 191 days for mothers. 

In general, the patterns of leave day evolution differ notably by region. In 1970, the allocation of leave days to mothers was, on average, the highest in OECD high-income economies, followed by countries in the Europe and Central Asia (ECA) region. More than fifty years later, our data show that the average allocation of leave to mothers is quite notably the highest in the ECA region, followed by OECD high-income economies. In other parts of the world, mothers had, and continue to have, much lower averages than the two aforementioned regions.

In 1970, fathers received only a fraction of the leave days that were available to mothers in all regions. This remains true today. With the exception of OECD high-income economies, progress in allocating more leave to fathers upon the birth of a child has been very slow. Indeed, globally, the average number of leave days for fathers increased by fewer than 20 days over the 52-year period (and the median has increased by only two days). OECD high-income economies have, however, made significant progress in increasing leave allocation to fathers. While in 1970, the average number of leave days for fathers in OECD high-income economies was less than half a day; by 2021, this had increased to an average of 83.7 days. 

It would be interesting to compare progress in legislation on leave allocation with the uptake of leave by fathers, but data on leave uptake is not comprehensively available. A study based on data from the European Union and Norway shows that, while fathers’ uptake of the leave allocated to them has been rising, it remains at a lower level than mothers’ and is divergent within the region. Apart from the legal entitlement of leave, employers’ attitudes in practice and the social environment contribute to whether fathers share family leave with their partners and the length of that leave.

Is a smaller gap in leave associated with better outcomes?

Our estimation results show that as the gap between the number of days allocated to each parent shrinks, women’s labor force participation rate increases.  This relationship appears to be particularly strong in countries in the South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa regions. The analysis finds no evidence that reducing the leave gap is correlated with the gender wage gap, or with women’s career progression. This suggests that while policy movements in this area may be necessary to ensure women’s inclusion in the workforce, additional instruments may be needed to support their career progression.

More detailed analysis, preferably with micro data, is needed to fully disentangle both the relationship between relative allocation of maternity and paternity leave days and economic outcomes as well as the lack of uptake of paternity leave by fathers. We hope the availability of detailed data from the Women, Business and the Law project, will inspire this work.


Liang Shen

Analyst, World Bank Group

Sarah Bunker

Data Fellow, Gender Group, World Bank

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