In her April 28 article for Policy Options, Jennifer Mathers McHenry argues that the Trudeau government should have introduced dedicated paternity leave, instead of offering parents the choice of spreading their existing Employment Insurance (EI) benefits over either 12 or 18 months. As I argued in my IRPP study on parental leave, of all the available options for reform, so-called “daddy-days” shouldn’t be the priority, relative to other options for reform.

Proponents of reserved leave for dads have argued that it encourages fathers to shoulder a greater burden of unpaid caregiving for children and reduces the gender wage gap for women. The theory is that dads who take the paid leave will permanently change how they distribute the time they spend on caregiving, freeing moms to earn more in paid employment. And the hope is that, by signalling a new social norm, employers will be forced to change their practices, making it easier for subsequent generations of dads to take leave and making workplace cultures more family friendly.

So, what’s the problem? Why, as a self-proclaimed feminist (like the Prime Minister, as McHenry notes), might I have some concerns about prioritizing a dedicated paternity leave?

Here’s a brief list:

We should worry at least as much about inequalities among families

Yes, all children have a biological father and a biological mother, but not all moms have partner dads. Even if we ensure that daddy days would be equally available to same-sex partners, 1 in 8 new moms doesn’t have a partner. Should single moms be permitted to take the additional leave otherwise available to a dad? If not, why not? If so, wouldn’t this introduce a new inequity compared with other moms? Personally, that’s not a policy or political fight I’d be keen to pick.

Within couples, household income plays a big role in the reasons that the dad isn’t taking the EI leave. As I point out in my study, lower-income couples are much more likely to report that the mom took the EI-paid leave because the dad didn’t qualify for benefits. A nontransferable leave is of no help to moms if their partner doesn’t meet the eligibility rules and cannot take it. Under the same eligibility rules, 1 in 5 new working moms doesn’t qualify for benefits. I think that’s a pressing policy challenge.

Meanwhile, highly educated dads, the ones with stronger life-time earning potential, are already more likely to take leave with a new child. Given that husband-wife couples are increasingly matched in education and employability, introducing nontransferable leave to dads could be a large windfall gain to high-educated and highly employable couples, leaving lower-income families even further behind.

Moms’ earnings and dads’ caregiving may not be interchangeable

Economists who study the gender wage gap find that decisions about paid work and unpaid care are complex and can’t be explained by economic incentives alone. Parents, and mothers in particular, face a range of trade-offs, depending on workplace flexibility, child care options and personal preferences.

A review of the literature suggests that a mom may not actually reduce the time she spends on child care, even as her work hours increase. Furthermore, dads may not substantially increase the time they spend on child care when moms work longer hours. Couples don’t seem to treat their time working and parenting as a zero-sum proposition.

In countries that have policies promoting employment by mothers – paid parental leave and access to child care, for example – more moms are encouraged to work, but many opt to work part time, where their earnings remain lower. By contrast, in the United States, where there is no national paid parental leave and overall female labour force participation is lower, women are more likely to be represented in “fast track” high earning jobs. When we talk about lowering employment inequities for parents, I think we should prioritize overall participation for moms, not just closing the wage gaps that are most pronounced in high-income professions.

In Quebec, where dads have dedicated leave of 5 or 3 weeks, the increase in the share of fathers who take any paid leave has been highlighted as a major success. The vast majority of couples opt for the “basic” plan, which offers up to 55 weeks in paid benefits, with 5 weeks reserved for the dad. But because all benefits expire at 52 weeks, the system encourages most of the paternity leave to overlap with a mother’s time off. It’s difficult to see how this design can be expected, on its own, to lead to higher employment earnings for moms.

Dedicated leave for dads is expensive and it may not be responsible for increases in paternal caregiving

Without other changes to our EI system, new benefits paid to eligible dads will be higher than benefits paid to moms, because eligible dads will have higher insured earnings and benefits rise with insured earnings. Relative to other uses for that money, is that the most efficient way to help families with young children?

Internationally, policy-makers have found that dads need much stronger incentives to take paid leave, and this results in systems that deliberately pay higher benefits to dads than to moms. Does it make sense to tackle one form of gender inequality by introducing another one?

Even in European countries that have nontransferable and well-paid paternity leave, the rates of leave-taking by dads remain quite low. The take-up is highest in Sweden, where dads now have two months of dedicated paternity benefits. But researchers have found that in Sweden dads tend to use the leave around winter and summer holidays as a way to subsidize and stretch time off they would likely take anyway. Furthermore, while the Swedish system encourages more dads to take time off for a new child, it hasn’t led to longer-term changes in caregiving. For example, dads in Sweden who used the dedicated leave are no more likely to take time off from work later on when a school-aged child is ill. Another jurisdiction with dedicated leave for dads, Norway, has actually rolled back some of the paternal leave to increase the amount of time parents can share between them.

We have a chicken and egg problem in paternity leave and fathers’ caregiving. It’s difficult to determine whether countries that introduce reserved paternity leave are more likely to see an increase in paternal time on caregiving, or whether countries where paternal caregiving is more common are more likely to introduce reserved paternity leave. Yes, studies like the qualitative one cited by McHenry find an association between leave for dads and paternal caregiving. But is that because of policy, or did policy change because of broader social and generational trends? Compared with other Canadian dads before the provincial policy change, Quebec dads were already nearly three times more likely to claim EI-funded leave for a new child. Internationally, there’s evidence that cultural and generational differences explain a lot of the changes in time spent by dads on child care. When those differences are taken into account, it’s the policies that let parents share time, rather than dedicated leave for dads, that better promote paternal caregiving.

Given the weight of the evidence above, among all the issues in the current maternity and parental leave system to fix, I wouldn’t prioritize a new dedicated leave for dads, not with so many other challenges to address. I think the option to let families chose either a 12-month or 18-month leave will help some of them. For many families, it should allow parents to extend their leave so they return to work when their child is old enough for many more and lower cost child care spaces, instead of having to pay for the highest cost infant spaces when they are younger. Coordinating parental leave with child care policy matters a lot for women’s employment outcomes.

In the short-term, I’d like to see more help targeted toward lower and modest income families, so they can qualify for benefits and afford to make ends meet while on leave. Employment and Social Development Canada recently clarified that low-income families will be eligible to receive the federal Family Supplement for the duration of their leave, whether they take the 12-month or the 18-month option. This represents a modest increase in the overall value of this income-tested top-up.

In the long term, I’d like to see changes that make our parental leave system more inclusive, progressive and responsive to families, in all their diversity. If we want to do something about the feminization of poverty, I don’t see a good case for starting with dedicated paternity leave.


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Jennifer Robson is an associate professor in the Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management at Carleton University in Ottawa. Prior to joining Carleton, she worked in the voluntary sector, and in government as a political advisor and, later, as a public servant. Twitter @JenniferRobson8

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