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How six weeks' leave for dads could bring billions to the UK economy

Every year, for one week out of 52, there’s a good chance of fatherhood becoming part of the national conversation, thanks to Father’s Day. 2023 has been no exception, and it’s been a vintage year thanks to Leave in the Lurch, a major report by Pregnant Then Screwed, the Centre for Progressive Policy and Women in Data, which makes the case for more and better-paid paternity leave in the UK.

The report suggests that longer, better-paid leave could bring a whopping £23 billion increase in economic output, equating to 1% of the UK’s gross domestic product – all for a cost to UK taxpayers of between £1 billion and £1.6 billion.


For a relatively affluent country like ours, with a gender pay gap above the EU average, that sounds like an investment well worth considering – and it’s great to now have an economic rationale for this key policy change.


We are hugely appreciative of the work that has gone into publishing this report – and we applaud Pregnant Then Screwed’s focus on improving fathers’ access to leave, as a step towards more gender-equitable parenting. If anyone can get the UK’s politicians to sit up and take action on this issue, it’s Joeli Brearley and her brilliant band of campaigners!

 
The economic rationale

Leave in the Lurch finds that countries with more generous statutory paternity packages have smaller gender pay gaps. Specifically, its analysis of OECD data suggests that 12 countries offering fathers more than six weeks of paid leave have a 4-percentage point smaller gender wage gap, and 3.7 percentage point smaller gap between men’s and women’s labour force participation, than 26 countries offering less than six weeks.


We are, as you might expect, fully on board with the idea that more and better-paid leave for fathers could bring all sorts of benefits, including improved mental health for both parents, improved child outcomes and – as Leave in the Lurch focuses most attention on – more gender-equal employment practices and outcomes.


We also agree that six weeks’ well-paid leave specifically for fathers/ second parents is a sensible amount to campaign for: a huge improvement from the current situation but not so ambitious as to be ‘pie in the sky’. In our poll on the Organise Network asking if fathers should have six weeks’ well-paid leave in their baby’s first year – 94% of the 1.6k-plus early respondents said yes [see Action points below for link].

 
Two leaves, two policy goals

But our ‘take’ on what six weeks’ leave for dads should look like is that, rather than pushing for “six weeks’ paternity leave”, we need a system that provides and draws a clear distinction between paternity leave and parental leave reserved for fathers.

That may sound like a minor, technical point, but we think it’s an important one that is supported by international evidence. So we highlight it now in the hope of ensuring that as we and others pursue conversations with politicians of all parties about how to ‘bring home’ the benefits described in Leave in the Lurch, the point is not lost.

 
Paternity leave

Paternity leave is a ‘health and safety’ leave taken directly after the baby’s birth, which exists primarily to allow fathers/second parents to provide much-needed support to mothers who’ve just given birth – helping them recover, heal, and establish breastfeeding*.

*This blog assumes that mothers have given birth and are breastfeeding. We are aware that this is not always the case, however this assumption underpins the UK’s maternity and paternity leave system. As a matter of public policy, the NHS recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months – so we are assuming parenting leave should be designed with that as a ‘standard’ goal, even if parents’ ability to share baby-feeding may be enhanced where babies are bottle-fed.


At this point, Mum needs Dad there as an assistant, to keep her fed and watered, change nappies, run to the pharmacy, answer the door, bathe, soothe and distract the baby, and generally keep the household running as smoothly as possible when it’s just been hit by a baby-shaped meteorite. That’s important work. Early father-child bond-building is part of the story too, of course. For all these reasons, paternity leave matters hugely. And we need dads to be able to afford to take it.


But there’s no escaping the fact that even in the most gender-equal families, at this stage the father will be primarily a mother’s helper; an important presence, but as a caregiving parent, secondary. The baby wants Mum more, because she’s the one providing food, so achieving full interchangeability as caregivers is, for most families, a long way off. That’s fine: it’s how nature designed us.


For that reason, the focus of government policy and funding should be more on mothers at this point. We believe there should be a substantial period of well-paid maternity leave for mothers, supplemented by a shorter, well-paid paternity leave for fathers. The length of UK paternity leave is already in line with international comparators. What needs to change is that it should be available to all fathers, and be paid at a level where they can afford to take it (ideally 90% of salary).

 
Parental leave for fathers

Looking after children is a lifelong role and commitment, though, and as a society we don’t just want mothers to be good at it. Unless we support fathers to become fully expert, solo caregivers they won’t be able to participate as equal partners in that work – which means the playing field between mothers and fathers, both at home and in the workplace will remain skewed.

So our goal shouldn’t be to lengthen paternity leave, but rather to give fathers their own, protected parental leave: a period of time to look after their child that isn’t tied to the date of the birth, other than in the sense that it must be taken within the baby’s first year; and that is lost to the family if the father doesn’t take it. We suggest, as our starting point, a ‘daddy month’, again paid at 90% of salary.


Crucially, while fathers would be able to tack this parental leave on to the end of their paternity leave if that’s what made sense for the family, they would have the freedom to take it a later point in the first year. It might prove most useful when Mum has recovered fully from the birth, and has got the breastfeeding down to a fine art, for example – making it much more possible for her and Dad to ‘job-share’ the parenting.


Ideally, Dad would take all or most of this leave solo. That way, he’d be thrown in at the deep end and get to experience the full joys and responsibilities of hands-on parenting (which at the moment the statutory system expects Mums to do, as if it’s their lot in life). Policy-wise, a solo ‘daddy month’ makes more sense because otherwise the state would effectively be paying two parents simultaneously to look after one child.


Think how much more culturally powerful it would be, too, for employers to get used to dads taking an independent period of leave that’s clearly identified as being about looking after babies – rather than staying off for longer just after the baby’s arrived, when everyone knows the Mum will be at home too.

 
Learning from elsewhere

We think it’s interesting to note that among the 12 countries identified in the Pregnant Then Screwed paper as offering more than six weeks’ paid father-specific leave, and achieving smaller pay and labour participation gaps:

  • All but one (92%) offer fathers their own, paid parental leave: more in fact than offer paternity leave, which is available in only eight of the 12 countries (67%)

  • The parental leave available in all these 11 countries is also longer than the paternity leave (where offered). Only one country (France) offers a higher number of weeks’ worth of fully paid leave as paternity, as opposed to parental leave (4.6 weeks’ paternity vs 3.5 weeks’ parental leave).

  • Countries on the list which are most commonly cited as having made the greatest strides towards gender equality offer substantial periods of reserved parental leave for fathers – and pay it well. For example, Norway offers 15 weeks’ worth of fully paid reserved parental leave for fathers; Iceland, 14.3 weeks and Sweden, 10 weeks.] Two of these three countries do not offer paternity leave.

By contrast, reserved parental leave for fathers is available in just four of the 26 comparator countries (15%), while paternity leave is available in 21 (80%).

Here’s a link to an interactive OECD table showing the number of weeks of paid father-specific leave available in each country, as cited in Leave in the Lurch. See also Graphs 1 and 2 below for more detail; these are based on December 2022 data from the OECD Family Database.

Graph 1. The number of weeks of paternity leave offered, and how many of them are paid at 100% of salary, in the ‘Six-weeks-plus’ countries

Graph 2. The number of weeks of reserved parental leave for fathers offered, and how many of them are paid at 100% of salary, in the ‘Six-weeks-plus’ countries


It would be interesting to explore the relative impacts of well-paid parental leave vs paternity leave, on gender pay gaps and labour market participation, in future research. This would be a far-from-straightforward task though, since – as you can see in Graphs 1 and 2 – they so often co-exist. The exact rules around eligibility, salary reimbursement levels and so on also differ in each country.

 
The Brexit effect

It’s worth noting that the distinction between paternity and reserved, non-transferable parental leaves is written clearly into the European Union Work-life Balance Directive, which came into force in August 2019 as an attempt to address women’s under-representation in the labour market.

The directive doesn’t apply in the UK, since we are no longer a member of the EU – but it offers a useful point of comparison, and helps us see the direction of travel of parenting leave reform in the EU countries.


As well as stipulating a minimum period of paid paternity leave and making it a Day One right for fathers (not currently the case in the UK), the directive positions paid, reserved and non-transferable parental leave as central to achieving the goal of gender equality – requiring member states to offer parents four months’ paid parental leave (up to the child’s 8th birthday), of which two must be non-transferable between them.


The UK already meets the minimum EU requirement in terms of length of parental leave, since parents with responsibility for a child are eligible to a week’s parental leave per year up to their 18th birthday. But crucially, all of this leave is currently unpaid – something that would need to shift if we had stayed in the EU.

 
Action points
  • If you haven’t already, read and share Leave in the Lurch

  • Take our Organise Network *poll here

  • Our Daddy Leave working paper (published August 2022), which sets out a model for parenting leave reform including well-paid paternity and reserved parental leave for fathers, a better-paid but shorter maternity leave, and other parental leave that could be taken by either parent, is available on the resources page of our website

  • Read our two recent blogs about the £1,000 per father paternity leave gap in the UK, and why we need to give Britain’s ‘workhorse fathers’ a break

  • If you work for a small or medium sized employer, share your experience of navigating the financial and other pressures of early parenthood by taking our Transition to Parenthood survey

  • Our podcast series, Daddy Leave Diaries, explores in detail how taking six months’ parental leave impacted one father’s ability to juggle his working and caregiving responsibilities. Listen here.

  • For a useful summary about the EU Work-life Balance Directive and the ‘Brexit Effect’, read: Oxana Golynker and Pascale Lorber (2020) “Directive 2019/1158 on work-life balance for parents and carers in the UK: the Brexit effect”, Revue de droit comparé du travail et de la sécurité sociale [Online], 4, 2020 https://journals.openedition.org/rdctss/833

  • The Fatherhood Institute will be taking part in a webinar in September alongside Pregnant Then Screwed and Maternity Action, to discuss the issue of improving leave for fathers, as a route to gender equity

 

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