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  • Paternity leave seems to be confirming the existence of the innate differences between mothers and fathers that feminist-minded experts assume to be mere social construction.   Tweet This
  • In most respects, the choices of mothers and fathers continue to mirror familiar gender patterns despite government incentives to adopt androgynous ways. Tweet This

Over the past decades, paternity leave has moved way up in the list of favored family policies. For anyone interested in the well-being of contemporary families, that’s good news. On the most concrete level, fathers are a crucial form of support in a world where couples often live far from the female relatives who traditionally would have taken the night shift. It gives solace when mothers are still recuperating from childbirth, and, if I remember correctly, in a state of mild panic at the thought of being left alone with the little alien. It gives new moms a chance to go to a doctor’s appointment, to take a can’t-wait business call, and to satisfy a longing for a long, hot shower. It sets the stage for close father-child bonds, a bond with unique benefits for young children. In a deeper sense, paternity leave allows couples to share the shock of being catapulted into a new stage of life and to absorb the reality of their new, intertwined identity.  

Reading through the extensive research on the subject, however, you’d have to conclude that experts think about paternity leave very differently. Their primary interest has not been family bonding, nor even involved fathers as a good in and of themselves, but the re-ordering of gender relations. Fathers need to take care of their infant sons and daughters so that women will be freer to pursue their careers, or as economists sometimes put it, to reach their “full labor market potential.” Paternity leave will ensure that fathers develop their childcare skills so they will stop viewing mothers as the default caretaker. That would allow women to shift some of their energies from domestic responsibilities to market work, to earn more money, and so bring about more gender equality. Women who cut back work hours, work part time, or maybe even stay at home to be with their children represent a retreat into the socially-constructed gender roles policy needs to overcome. Equality is all. 

On these grounds, the results of paternity leave have been at best ho-hum. It’s still early in the game—paternity leave has only been around since the late 20th century—but thus far, there’s not much evidence to support the assumptions of policy egalitarians. On the contrary, paternity leave seems to be confirming the existence of the innate differences between mothers and fathers that feminist-minded experts assume to be mere social construction.  

It’s easy from our 21st century vantage point to underestimate just how radical an idea paternity leave was when it was first hatched. At least as a regular practice, father care of infants has been virtually unknown in human history (for anyone interested, here’s the one small exception.) So, when in 1974, Sweden re-imagined its long-established six-month maternity leave as “parental leave,” thereby allowing fathers to use some part of the time off if couples so wished, it was a hinge moment in the history of family policy. Other Nordics were quick to pick up on the idea and introduced their own similar policies.  

There was only one problem: couples didn’t bite. For almost two decades, even as women took the leave offered to them, men did what they always did and went to the office or factory. Whether this was because their bosses and peers looked askance at the idea of paternity leave or because they simply preferred to be at work rather than caring for a newborn at home is hard to know. But in 1993, Norway came up with what has become the preferred nudge for foot-dragging dads: reserve at least four weeks of parental leave for fathers alone. Only dads could use that month; there was no room for “Honey, there’s a big project the boss wants me to lead. Do you mind if you stay home instead?” The ploy worked. In 1992, only 2.4% of Norwegian fathers took leave; their numbers soared to 70% in 1997. Sweden and Iceland saw a similar jump after they introduced what has come to be known as the “daddy month” or “daddy quota.” And in 2002 Sweden introduced a second month just for dads, while Norway went to 15 weeks. 

The Norwegian approach has caught on throughout the post-industrialized world. In 2006, Quebec adopted a “daddy quota” similar to the Scandinavian model, including five weeks of dedicated, non-transferable, government-paid leave for new fathers. Italy, a one-time capital of machismo, began to require fathers to take 7 days off within the first five months of their child’s birth. A regulation from the European Union, the “EU Work–Life Balance Directive of 2019,” now requires member states to allow at least 2 full nontransferable daddy months in the year or two after a child’s birth, in addition to 10 days at the time of birth. 

With the help of feminist-inclined researchers and policy bureaucrats, countries have begun to comply. Spain recently upped its paternity leave to 16 weeks, the same as the country’s maternity leave; the policy puts them ahead of Sweden in gender-equality terms. Last year, France increased its leave for fathers to 28 days, more than doubling the time offered just a few years ago. As most readers probably know, the glaring exception is the United States. The federal government has remained determinedly neutral on the entire subject of leave, though 9 states and the District of Columbia are developing their own paternity leave policies. Perhaps the most unlikely example comes from Japan and South Korea. These two countries, notoriously traditional in their domestic arrangements and sporting sky high gender gaps, now offer some of the most generous paternity leave benefits in the world.  

So, what do we know about the impact of paternity leave on gender equality so far? Firm conclusions are hard to come by since paternity leave looks different depending on the country. Some offer only a skimpy two weeks, others 6 months, some let couples decide how to divide up the available leave time, others set aside “daddy months” that can’t be transferred to mothers. Some give fathers 100% pay, some 70%, others nothing. But what seems clear is that by and large, if you offer fathers leave, they will take it under two conditions: first, leave-takers have to be compensated at least 70% of their regular salary, and second, dads must have their own earmarked nontransferable leave time. When either of those two qualifications are absent, parental leave will largely remain women’s territory. 

Take the example of California, which passed a law allowing 6 weeks in 2004 at about 55% of usual pay; women increased their leave time by two to three weeks. As for men, they added a mere two or three days. By contrast, 75% of new fathers in Quebec stayed home after the province launched a use-it-or-lose it, well-compensated 5 weeks; before the reform only 22% took job-protected leave.  

Whatever the reason for growing father involvement, it has not changed the fact that mothers continue to spend more time taking care of the kids than fathers; they continue to put in significantly fewer hours in the labor market, and they continue to earn less money.

This doesn’t mean that the earmarked-leave and generous-compensation formula is a reliable path to 50/50 work-family life sharing. On the contrary, in most respects, the choices of mothers and fathers continue to mirror familiar gender patterns despite government incentives to adopt androgynous ways. Maybe it’s not surprising that a trad country like South Korea has only been able to increase father’s uptake from 5% in 2014 to a modest 20% in 2019. Or that “paternity harassment by annoyed employers is common enough in Japan that only an anemic 7% of new fathers take paternity leave. Or even that only about half of German fathers take leave despite being offered Scandinavian level benefits. More striking are the progressive countries where fathers do take months of leave but almost never more than the minimum determined by their country’s regulations. That’s quite different than mothers who tend to go for whatever they can get. Quebec dads, for example, may get good marks for taking their 5 weeks of daddy leave, but their efforts still pale next to the 46 weeks taken by mothersIn Denmark and Finland, mothers take 90% of total leave offered to parents. Iceland and Sweden fathers do better, though even there, mothers take 70% of the total parental leave available to couples.   

None of this is to deny that fathers are taking care of their young children far more than they did a generation ago. Or that men don’t now see fatherhood as more central to their identities. Whether this is due to paternity leave policies or broader cultural changes or the biological benefits of father involvement is an open question. Note that this shift is true even for the United States, where access to paid paternity leave has been rare. Whatever the reason for growing father involvement, it has not changed the fact that mothers continue to spend more time taking care of the kids than fathers; they continue to put in significantly fewer hours in the labor market, and they continue to earn less money. You can find a few studies that show paternity leave to be associated with an increase in mother’s labor force participation, but the increase in actual time spent at work is almost always modest. Other studies find either no effect or even a negative effect on mother’s workforce attachment.  

One of the most recent papers examining the impact of paternity leave on mother’s work hours in 10 European countries continues in this vein. In three of the countries studied, mothers’ employment and hours increased; in another three, there was an increase in mothers’ employment rates, but a decrease in average weekly hours worked (it seems more mothers were going to work – but only part time); and in the remaining two countries there was no effect at all. Another 2021 paper from Austria bluntly concluded that the “enormous expansions of parental leave and child care subsidies have had virtually no impact on gender convergence.” In the Nordic states, where paternity leave has been around the longest and where gender parity is close to a national religion, it’s a similar story. A quarter of all working women in Sweden still put in only part time hours; in Iceland, Denmark and Norway, the amount is closer to a third. 

Needless to say, part-time work by men is rare. Scholars and policy architects predicted gender revolution policies like paternity leave would bring not just more equal caretaking and less burdened women, but higher fertility. It may be the opposite. New studies from South Korea and Spain suggest that men who take leave lose interest in having more children.  

It’s strange to think that my WWII-generation father, beloved dad to three children, never changed a diaper in his life. His incompetence was not at all unusual in his day. But now that we have made the happy discovery that fathers are fully capable of feeding, comforting, and changing their infants,  taking them to the supermarket in a front-pack baby carrier, and singing them to sleep, there will be no going back. Nor should there be. Still, it’s a leap too far from this newly-recognized truth of men’s ability to care for the youngest children to the idea that mothers and fathers can be molded into generic, interchangeable parents. There will be outliers as there always are in human affairs, but most couples find that mothers have a more visceral, physiological connection to their children, especially when they are babies. Policymakers need to keep these realities in mind when trying to order our multi-faceted lives.  

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America.