Maternity leave, paternity leave and parental leave
Maternity leave (or pregnancy leave) is an employment-protected leave or absence for employed women around the time of childbirth, or adoption in some countries (OECD, 2011). International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 183 and Recommendation No. 191 recommend at least 14 weeks of maternity leave, paid at least two-thirds of the employee’s previous salary and financed by social insurance or public funds (ILO, 2014).
Paternity leave is generally a short period of leave for the father immediately after childbirth in order to take care of the infant and assist the mother. The International Labour Conference at its 98th session in 2009 on Gender equality at the heart of decent work called upon governments to develop sound policies for a better balance between work and family responsibilities for both women and men, including paternity and/or parental leave, with incentives to encourage men to take up such leave (ILO, 2014).
Parental leave refers to a relatively long-term leave available to either or both parents, allowing them to take care of an infant or young child, usually following the maternity or paternity leave period (ILO, 2014).
Why child-related leaves matter for gender equality
Maternity, paternity and parental leave play a role in promoting gender equality in the workplace. They affect the choices women make and the opportunities available to them on the labour market (World Bank, 2015; Cerise et al, 2013).
Research highlights the importance of striking a balance in the duration of maternity leave. When maternity leave is too short, mothers might not feel ready to return to work and in some cases drop out of the workforce. However, very long leave periods may undermine women’s labour force participation by discouraging employers from hiring women of childbearing age. The 14-week duration recommended by ILO takes such considerations into account (World Bank, 2015; ILO, 2014).
Paternity and parental leave taken by fathers can foster more equal parenting roles. Such measures can initiate a shift in social norms and practices that entrench childcare as solely women’s work and reinforce men’s role as the primary breadwinner. Ultimately, they can enable women to engage and remain in paid employment and progress in their careers (World Bank, 2015; Cerise et al, 2013; ILO, 2014).
Of equal importance to having the benefit is the question of who pays for it. If companies have to pay for maternity leave, then the cost of hiring women of reproductive age will be higher for the employer than the cost of hiring men. (World Bank, 2015) This can create disincentives to hiring women. In order to protect the position of women on the labour market, ILO’s standard-setting instruments recommend that benefits be provided through public funds (ILO, 2014).
Practically every country around the world requires employers to grant some type of maternity leave (ILO, 2014). Only Tonga and Suriname do not entitle parents to any kind of leave, paid or unpaid, when a child is born. Papua New Guinea grants unpaid maternity leave and the United States unpaid parental leave. All other countries have laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave, or offering maternity benefits through paid parental leave (World Bank, 2015).
According to ILO (2014), only 34% of the countries fully meet the requirements of Convention No. 183 in terms of providing for at least 14 weeks of leave, at a rate of at least two-thirds of the employee’s previous salary and financed by social insurance or public funds.
As shown by the figure below, in 51% of the countries granting paid maternity leave, the government pays for maternity benefits. In another 30%, the employer pays the full cost and in the remaining 19% this cost is shared between the employer and the government (World Bank, 2015).
A large majority of female workers, representing around 830 million women around the world, are not entitled to maternity leave, mostly because they work in the informal sector. Almost 80% of these workers were found in Africa and Asia (ILO, 2014).
Paternity leave entitlements are becoming more common. In 2014, at least 79 countries out of 167 for which data is available require employers to offer paternity leave, mostly in developed countries (ILO, 2014).
In 2014, 66 countries out of 169 required employers to offer parental leaves, mostly in Europe and Central Asian countries (ILO, 2014).
Even when parental leave was available to both mothers and fathers, it was taken by women in most cases. Few men used their legal rights to parental leave, especially when those were unpaid (ILO, 2014).
Well-designed maternity, paternity and parental leave schemes can be effective tools for promoting gender equality and women’s access to the labour market. From this perspective, international agencies such as the ILO have suggested that policymakers focus on the following areas:
- Adopting and implementing inclusive laws and policies: Eligibility criteria for maternity leave in many countries are too restrictive to achieve universal protection. The ILO estimates that around 15.6 million female domestic workers worldwide are not legally entitled to maternity leave. Self-employed women; agricultural, casual or temporary workers; and migrants are also frequently excluded (ILO, 2014; OECD, 2014).
- Mutualising the costs of maternity leave: In accordance with international legal standards, maternity leave should be paid at least two-thirds of the employee’s previous salary. This benefit should be paid by social insurance or public funds at minimal or no cost to employers, in combination with public support measures and incentives, especially targeting small and medium-sized enterprises (ILO, 2014).
- Promoting a more equitable division of responsibilities between parents: Legislated paternity leave is an important instrument to encourage men to take a greater role in childcare while promoting women’s career advancement. Engaging men and boys in transforming discriminatory social norms is critical for women’s empowerment. For instance, efforts to involve men in maternity care in India led to an increase in the number of men accompanying their wives to hospital facilities (ILO, 2008 in Cerise & al, 2013). Such policies may include, among other things, incentives to encourage men to use their legal entitlements to paternity/parental leave. Some countries, like Portugal, use bonuses to extend the total length of paid parental leave if it is shared among both parents (World Bank, 2015; Cerise et al, 2013). Sweden and Iceland introduced a paternal leave scheme that can only be taken by the father and cannot be transferred to the mother, as is the case in many countries. This led to an increase in number of fathers taking paternal leave: In Iceland, 84% of fathers took their entire three months leave quota in 2007 (OECD Development Centre, 2015).
Cerise, S., Eliseeva, A., Francavilla, F., Mejia, C. & Tuccio, M. (2013), How do maternity leave and discriminatory social norms relate to women’s employment in developing countries? Issues Paper, OECD Development Centre, http://www.oecd.org/dev/poverty/OECD%20DEV%20(2013)%20-%20SIGI%20and%20Maternity%20Leave.pdf
ILO (2014), Maternity and paternity at work: Law and practice across the world, http://www.ilo.org/global/publications/books/WCMS_242617/lang–en/index.htm
OECD (2011), Doing Better for Families, OECD Publishing, http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/social-issues-migration-health/assurer-le-bien-etre-des-familles_9789264098794-fr#page3
OECD (2016), Family Database, Social Policy Division, Trends in parental leave policies since 1970, http://www.oecd.org/els/family/PF2_5_Trends_in_leave_entitlements_around_childbirth.pdf
OECD Development Centre (2015), SIGI Regional Report: Europe and Central Asia, http://www.oecd.org/dev/development-gender/SIGI-BrochureECA-2015-web.pdf
World Bank (2015), Women, Business and the Law 2016: Getting to Equal, http://wbl.worldbank.org/~/media/WBG/WBL/Documents/Reports/2016/Women-Business-and-the-Law-2016.pdf
ILO, International Labour Standards on Maternity protection, accessed March 19, 2016, http://www.ilo.org/global/standards/subjects-covered-by-international-labour-standards/maternity-protection/lang–fr/index.htm