Ivona Hideg is associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics.
Attention new dads: The federal government has an offer you don’t want to miss. It’s a chance to spend more time with your baby, lift the load off your partner, do your bit for gender equality and – best of all – improve your chances for promotion at work. If only new moms could get the same sweet deal.
The program, which started on March 17, now allows new dads or the second parent in the household to receive an additional five weeks of Employment Insurance parental leave at regular benefit rates, or eight weeks at a reduced rate. Previously, two parents were allowed to share up to 15 months of parental leave however they wished, although the vast majority of time was claimed by mothers. This new plan allocates these extra weeks exclusively to fathers or second parents. It’s a big deal.
Based on experience in Quebec and other countries that already operate similar programs, when the second parent (which in most households is the father) is offered parental benefits on a use-it-or-lose-it basis, he or she overwhelmingly choose to use it. More than 80 per cent of Quebec’s new dads take at least some portion of their parental benefit, compared to a mere 12 per cent of fathers in the rest of Canada.
Creating a Canada-wide child-care program such as this will produce several beneficial outcomes. First, dads who access the 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.
Working mothers have long faced an unfair career penalty simply because they shoulder the bulk of child-rearing duties. Plenty of research demonstrates that the longer a woman is away from paid work, the less likely she is to advance through promotion or pay increases once she returns. Further, women who take a longer maternity leave are seen as less committed to their jobs by co-workers and managers. This is a foundational fact in the chronic underrepresentation of women in upper management. Reducing mothers’ time away from work by shifting more child-care responsibilities on to fathers could play a major role in correcting this problem.
Yet many men appear reluctant to take substantial time off for child care out of fear for the sort of career penalties experienced by women. Remarkably, however, it appears men who take paternity leaves do not suffer the same negative implications as do women. My own research, currently in progress, shows men who take paternity leave are actually viewed more positively than those who do not, in regards to hireability and leadership ability. This is especially true for men well-established in their careers. Work by other researchers supports these observations: 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.
At this point, some female readers may be throwing up their hands in dismay. How are men able to turn time spent caring for young children into a pathway to career success, while generations of mothers have been held back by the exact same thing? It’s a fair comment, but ultimately this irony should prove helpful to women and the overall cause of gender equality.
As a career mother and gender-equity researcher myself, I think we should recognize Ottawa’s new parental leave program as an important first step in breaking down gender stereotypes. Results showing a positive impact on men’s career prospects when taking time off simply adds to this policy’s existing appeal. Plus, as more men pause their careers to look after young children – either because it’s the right thing to do, or perhaps because it may help their career − we can expect negative perceptions of women who do the same thing to fade away.
There are some caveats. Anecdotally, it appears quite a few men take parental leave at the same time as their partners, which casts them as mothers’ little helper rather than sole daytime parent-in-charge. So, we still need to move social expectations towards greater responsibility by men for child care. Getting there will require more than five to eight weeks of leave. In the long term, an ideal system will likely involve a 50/50 split in parental leave between working mothers and fathers. (Not including the 15 weeks of maternity benefits available only to birth mothers, of course.)
All Canadians have a right to expect gender equality both at home and in the workplace. This is not a women’s-only issue, and Ottawa’s new parental benefit is one significant way in which we can all move forward together.