To ensure maximum take-up by men, you make part or all of the leave period an individual entitlement and ensure a high rate of pay.
All European countries (with the exception of Switzerland) now have a statutory right to parental leave. Maternity and paternity leave are, respectively, for women and men only, and focused on ensuring the health, welfare and support of mothers at around the time of birth and of their newborn children. Parental leave, by contrast, is equally available to women and men and is mainly intended to make it easier for both parents to devote time to caring for young children.
Perhaps the biggest issue today surrounding parental leave is how to increase men’s take-up – how, in short, to make it genuinely parental. What has become clear, from experience, is that the way parental leave is designed makes a big difference. To ensure minimal take-up by men, you design a long period of low paid or unpaid leave that is a family entitlement, i.e. the leave period is per family and parents decide how to divide the period between themselves. To ensure maximum take-up by men, you make part or all of the leave period an individual entitlement and also ensure a high rate of income replacement for parents taking leave.
There are examples of well-designed leave policies in Europe, but they are in a small minority and mostly in the Nordic states. Iceland is particularly striking, both because it completely overhauled its previously unequal leave system quite recently (in 2000), and because that overhaul produced a system that has attracted much international interest. Iceland has no Maternity or Paternity leave as such, just 9 months Parental leave, divided between 3 months for the mother, 3 months for the father and 3 months for the family to divide as they choose; parents taking leave receive 80% of their normal earnings upto a ceiling. So fathers have a substantial period of leave earmarked for them and well paid.
The results are clear. In 2012, the latest date for which there is information, nearly all fathers (93%) took leave, averaging nearly 3 months each (87 days). Mothers took their 3 months – but also the lion’s share of the family entitlement, totalling an average of 127 days, confirming that any ‘family’ entitlement (as opposed to an ‘individual’ entitlement) will be taken by women.
Two final thoughts. First, how might the Icelandic model develop? A 2016 report from an Icelandic Parliamentary committee proposed an extension to 12 months leave, with five for the mother, five for the father and two to be shared; in other words, longer individual entitlements and a reduced family entitlement. Second, parental leave schemes that are well-designed to produce maximum take-up by fathers do not drop out of the sky; they are the product of a society where gender equality has become a political, public and media priority. Iceland seems serious about wanting more gender equality in child-rearing; it’s less clear that this is so in many other countries.