Two weeks' paid paternity leave is welcome but doesn't go far enough

New Irish fathers will soon enjoy two weeks of paid leave, Leo Varadkar has announced

paternity, leave, entitlements, paid, companies

File photo. Image: David Jensen / EMPICS Entertainment

In an announcement coinciding with Father's Day, the Social Protection Minister yesterday unveiled new paternity benefit and leave entitlements.

The measures will give new fathers a “statutory right to two weeks’ leave from work within the first 26 weeks of their new child's birth”.

Minister Varadkar said a payment of €230 will be paid out by the Department of Social Protection for each week of leave, provided the person has been paying PRSI.

When implemented, the new legislation will mark a notable advance from the lack of paid paternity leave currently available to new fathers. But is it enough?

The private sector

Last November Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg made headlines when he announced he was going to take two months of paternity leave after the birth of his daughter Max.

He described it as a ‘very personal’ decision, made after discussions with his wife Priscilla “about how we're going to take time off” during the first months of the child’s life. Seperately, Lori Matloff Goler, Facebook's head of human resources, announced they were introducing four months paid parental leave for all their employees globally - not just in the US.

“This expanded benefit primarily affects new fathers and people in same-sex relationships outside the US,” she explained. “It will not alter the existing maternity leave currently available to all employees worldwide.

“In reviewing our parental leave policies, we have decided to make this change because it's the right thing to do for our people and their families,” she added.

Facebook’s policy has been one of the most high-profile paternity leave policies, but several other big name technology companies in the US have also introduced pioneering policies - including some that even go beyond Facebook’s generous offering.

Netflix, for example, last August introduced ‘unlimited’ parental leave for salaried workers for the first year of their child’s life. The company received some criticism that the policy only applied to salaried workers in certain divisions - but a few months after the initial announcement the company introduced several months of paid leave for their hourly employees as well.

Microsoft, Apple, Twitter and other big name tech companies also offer parental leave benefits ranging from several weeks to several months. Some particularly generous organisations include change.org (18 weeks parental and adoption leave) and Reddit (17 weeks leave), Time reports.

There’s cause for some caution with these numbers, however, given that people working in such technology companies experience a radically different corporate culture than the majority of employees elsewhere. The reality is that many companies simply cannot afford the sort of generous packages offered by Silicon Valley employers.

Writing in The Guardian, Suzanne McGee explained: “The unemployment rate in the software industry is about half the [US] average, and it has been incredibly hard for fast-growing technology companies worldwide to find the staff they need. Elsewhere in corporate America, no such pressure exists for CEOs to lavish big perks – including big parental leave benefits – on grateful employees.”

While tech companies have traditionally led the way, figures compiled by Fatherly show that a number of finance, accounting, legal and media firms also rank among the best workplaces for new fathers.

However, some commentators have suggested that - even in the companies with generous policies - a culture change is needed for more employees to actually take advantage of the benefits available to them.

Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement was in that sense seen as a particularly notable development. Seeing a major figure in a company take paternity leave may encourage others to take their leave without fearing that it’s putting them at a disadvantage, and helps dismantle old stereotypes about maternity and paternity leave alike.

Social security leave

Whatever about the private sector, how does Ireland’s new paternity leave policy compare to other EU countries?

An EU study published last year showed that 23 member states had some manner of paid paternity leave - ranging from a single day’s worth of leave in Italy to 64 working days in Slovenia.

The new rules here will see Ireland falling slightly below the existing EU average, putting it on par with countries such as the UK, Belgium and Poland.

 

Image: Europarl

These figures do not tell the entire story in some cases. While Germany has no paternity leave, for example, it has a convoluted but generous parental leave system that guarantees parents can take lengthy periods of leave while a substantial portion of their income is guaranteed. 

When it comes to state-supported leave (whether partially or entirely funded by social security), it has also been observed that shared parental leave can be a more progressive and balanced approach than completely separate maternity and paternity leave benefits.

Writing in the Trinity College Law Review, Ciara O’Leary explains: “In countries such as Norway and Sweden, fathers take between thirty and eighty percent of shared parental leave because it is heavily encouraged and facilitated through their parental leave schemes. High income levels for women are guaranteed by these governments and parents are less likely to be influenced by the common perception that men have a higher earning power.”

She acknowledges that “although the presumption that mothers will take the majority of shared leave is accurate in the majority of countries that currently use it, it is arguably a result of existing social attitudes that can be challenged by introducing far more drastic policies such as the ones in place in Scandinavian countries”.

The new paternity leave rules for Irish fathers are a start, for sure, but perhaps not as radical as some may have hoped. 

However, aside from direct Government reforms and initatives, there is also a need for wider social change to encourage mothers and fathers to more equally share leave. Such a shift in attitudes could ultimately usher in greater equality both at home and in the workplace.