The Benefits of Sharing Parental Leave

The Benefits of Sharing Parental Leave

by Marina Arnaud

Canada offers generous parental leave benefits in comparison to many countries around the world. But are families using them wisely? 

In addition to the maternity benefits offered to biological mothers for up to 15 weeks, new parents (biological or adoptive) can choose to take the standard parental benefits for up to 35 weeks (at a weekly benefit rate of 55% of the claimant’s average weekly insurable earnings) or the extended parental benefits for up to 61 weeks (at a lower payout rate of 33%). This option allows parents to be with their newborns for up to 18 months, but their earnings will be the same as if they chose the 12 months standard option. 

While the maternity benefits are exclusively for the birth mother, the parental benefits can be taken by either parent or shared between them. However, outside of Quebec, fewer than 12% of Canadian fathers take any parental leave at all

Use It or Lose It Leave

In March 2019, the federal government introduced the option of five to eight weeks of additional use-it-or-lose-it leave for non-birth parents. This parental sharing benefit is intended for two-parent families (including adoptive and same-sex parents) who agree to share parental benefits. Quebec has had its own non-transferable parental leave for dads since 2006, and use has steadily increased over time - from 27% in 2005 to 85% in 2015, according to Statistics Canada

The parental sharing benefit is intended to promote greater gender equality, according to a release by Employment and Social Development Canada. The goal is to incentivize more couples to put less weight on the mothers or primary caregivers, as the dominance of women on parental leave puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to their careers and economic independence. And it seems to be working. The Globe and Mail reported that from March to October of 2019 (the last month for which data is available), 96,940 men took parental leave, compared to 81,480 during the same period the year before, according to data from Statistics Canada.

The Motherhood Penalty

Women face various setbacks at work when they decide to have children. It starts with the loss of income during the leave (parental benefits cover only 33% to 55% of a woman's annual salary), but the wage drop doesn't stop after that first year. Women continue to experience a significant earnings penalty for five years after the birth of a child, according to a 2019 report by the Royal Bank of Canada. These numbers are specific to mothers, not to parents generally. In fact, the report shows that men's wages rise during the period when women's wages are falling, and fathers actually make more money than men without children!

Moreover, the longer new mothers are away from paid work, the less likely they are to advance through promotion or pay raises once they return − and more likely to be fired or downsized. Research shows that women who take the standard 12-month maternity leave, when compared with women who take much shorter leaves, are less likely to advance to management positions and are perceived to be less committed to their jobs. Since women are already underrepresented in top management positions, this is very troubling. A 2017 Statistics Canada study of 10,108 public, private and government corporations revealed 61% of those companies' boards had no women. The study also showed that only 18% of director seats were held by women. While many women welcome taking time away from work to care for their children, there may be long-term effects on their careers. 

Even women who aren’t mothers are at a disadvantage in the workplace. Many women of child-bearing age face prejudices and stereotypes during the hiring process or when being considered for a promotion, as they pose a risk of leaving for a lengthy period of time. 

All these issues would be minimized if fathers took on a greater portion of parental leave. If both parents were equally likely to take time off after the birth of a child, employers wouldn’t have a systemic preference for men. It would ease gender conflict over promotion, pay and career, and eventually lead to a better representation of women in senior management.

The Benefits for Dads

In a 2018 survey of 1,530 Canadian men aged 25-54 commissioned by Dove Men+Care, an initiative to encourage men to change the conversation around paternity leave, 73% of Canadian men say they believe men should take equal parental leave as women (Canadian women still take eight times more time off than men do). Seventy-five percent of Canadian fathers or fathers-to-be in the study said they'd like to take more time off, but can't or couldn't afford it. Other factors that kept dads from taking parental leave were merely cultural: they were worried about how it might affect their careers. Half of Canadian fathers or fathers-to-be didn't feel comfortable asking their managers for more time off, and 28% said they were afraid their co-workers would judge them.

We’ve discussed the benefits of sharing parental benefits for moms, but what are the benefits for dads, and why should they make it work? 

Here’s what experts in the field say:

According to Dr. Michael Kaufman, Toronto author of The Time Has Come: Why Men Must Join The Gender Equality Revolution and co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, “the father who takes parental leave develops much more quickly the confidence that there isn't a single job, other than breastfeeding, that he can't do well, and as well as a mother can do.” He also argues that the benefits extend into the work environment. “In the workplace, this is about creating better male leaders, because they're going to become more responsive to other people's needs, they're going to become better listeners.” 

A 2019 study found that fathers who took at least two weeks of parental leave were 25% less likely to see their marriage or relationships end within the first six years following the birth of a child compared to couples where the father did not take parental leave. According to Richard Petts, one of the leading researchers, “taking parental leave signals a commitment on the part of fathers to make family a priority, which has long-term consequences for parental relationships.” 

According to Ivona Hideg, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, “dads who access the parental benefits will play a greater role in raising their baby and thus develop a closer relationship. But just as significant is the impact this will have on traditional gender roles and in allowing mothers to get back to work sooner.” Hideg also points out that men who take paternity leave are viewed more positively than those who don’t, in regards to hireability and leadership ability. “Men who take parental leave are seen as more communally-minded than those who don’t. And this has a beneficial effect on their perceived suitability for management positions, as well as their overall likeability.”

Flavia and Fernando shared their parental benefits so that Flavia could return to her business early and Fernando could experience the joys and challenges of staying home caring for a baby. 

Flavia and Fernando from Langley, BC, chose to share parental benefits after the birth of their second child. Flavia had started her notary public business the year before and couldn’t afford to take a full year off. When her daughter was seven months old and no longer relied exclusively on breastfeeding, she was ready to go back to work. “If I didn’t have the opportunity to leave my daughter with my husband, I wouldn’t have considered a daycare because she was too young. Since we don’t have any family in Canada, staying home longer would have compromised my business opportunities. I’m not sure I would still have a business to return to.”

Fernando took 14 weeks of parental leave so Flavia could tend to her business, and he received no pushback from his employer. “I spent three great months at home taking care of the baby. I learned her needs, her personality and was able to fully enjoy the fatherhood process. They grow so fast… It’s important for both parents to spend time with them. If I had a chance, I would do it again, maybe for even longer.” 

“It was great for my husband to understand it was not a vacation, as he always imagined. It was also great to create a deeper bond between him and our daughter,” added Flavia.

If we are expecting to achieve gender equality both at home and in the workplace, there needs to be a shift in social expectations towards men’s responsibility for child care. Luckily, we are on the right track. 

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