Parental Leave Policy and Gender Equality in Europe Feminist Economics

Feminist Economics

Carmen Castro-García and Maria Pazos-Morán

Could parental leave policies be designed to promote the equal distribution of childcare between parents? Carmen Castro-García and Maria Pazos-Morán explore this question by examining parental leave policies in twenty-one European countries and their influence on men’s behavior. Using data from 2008–10, the authors first describe the entitlement components of the existing policy schemes, including duration, payment, and transferability. Second, they analyze gender-disaggregated patterns of behavior to identify the most influential conditions that affect women’s and men’s leave take-up. 

Parental Leave Equality Index (PLEI). Castro-García and Pazos-Morán’s cross-country analysis revealed the existence of a social norm in parental leave use, with little variability between countries. Accordingly, women make use of the total leave time they are allotted, both individually and as a joint right. Only where leave is low paid are women’s uptake levels low, especially in countries that offer childcare alternatives. Men are most likely to take up leave if it is nontransferable and at the same time compensated at rates close to 100 percent of salary, while a significant minority takes up high-medium paid leave (between 60 and 74 percent of salary). But, no country shows a significant use of leave by men when it is low paid or transferable.

The authors use these findings to develop the Parental Leave Equality Index (PLEI). The PLEI is defined for each country as the proportion of leave men are likely to use out of the total time taken by men and women in each country. Thus, the PLEI ranks countries by the degree to which parental leave policies reinforce or diminish the gendered division of labor. PLEI values vary from 0 to 0.5, where 0 stands for total inequality whereas 0.5 would represent full equality (0.5 not being attained by any country).

PLEI reveals three types of parental leave policies. When ranking all twenty-one countries in order of accordance with PLEI values, Castro-García and Pazos-Morán distinguish among three types of parental leave policies. Each of these is associated with a certain orientation underlining public service policies generally and with a definite notion of societal gender roles. The group with the highest PLEI values (countries that promote co-responsibility) has nontransferable, highly paid leaves lasting more than eight weeks for men; these countries are the closest to reaching a model of “equal breadwinners/caregivers.” The second group (countries that consider men to be “incidental collaborators” in childcare) consists of countries that provide short-term leave for men or longer leaves that are not well paid, which promotes a “modified male-breadwinner” gender regime. Lastly, countries with PLEI values below 0.02 are those that most reinforce the gendered division of labor; they do not recognize men as entitled to parental leave, or if they do, the leave is limited to less than five highly paid days or is low paid or unpaid.

Each parent should be allotted equal, nontransferable, and fully paid parental leave. Castro-García and Pazos-Morán’s comparative results offer a way to promote men’s equal participation in childcare. If men will only take up nontransferable and well-paid parental leave, their balanced participation can only be promoted by a system where each parent has equal and nontransferable parental leave, and this leave is compensated at 100 percent of salary. Although Iceland has the most advanced leave arrangement, no country has a policy arrangement that would be a precondition to men’s and women’s equal participation in childcare.

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