Parental Leave & its importance in promoting gender equality

parental leave

Organizational and national level policies with regards to parental leave have an influence on the decision of who spends more time with the children. In addition, these policies can either hold back or promote gender equality based on how these are regulated. This is why it is important to put more emphasis on how parental leave is related to equality and how it creates opportunity for greater gender equality.

In February, Inklusiiv hosted a virtual event on the topic ‘’Parental Leave and its importance in promoting gender equality’’. The guest speakers were Johanna Lammi-Taskula (Research Manager at THL), Aleksi Lumme (Research Director at Reaktor), Livia Hakala (Lead Designer at Motley), Annica Moore (Executive Director at Mothers in Business MIB ry) and Julius Hurri (Talent Manager at Netlight Consulting).

We focused on issues such as:

  • How do parental leave policies provide equal opportunities for either of the parents to take the leave without having an effect in their income and caring responsibilities
  • How does that affect their decisions on which of the parents to take the leave?
  • What are the social and cultural structures that shape these policies and their overall importance in promoting gender equality?

What were the key learnings from this Inklusiiv Talks?

The arrival of a new family member is no doubt a life changing moment. To make the process as smooth as possible, it is the responsibility of both partners to play an equal role and share equal responsibilities in the endeavour. However, history has shown that women take a lion’s share of it even though the partners do share the anxiety during the process. This is why we need to better understand the role of parental leave!

1. Parental leave policies should promote equal rights for both parents

Despite Finland ranking fourth in EU Gender Equality Index, thanks to the improvement in political, economic and social decision-making, there is still a lot to do in terms of gender roles within the division of childcare responsibilities in Finland.

At present, fathers spend about 10% of the paid parental leave and the rest is used by mothers. So, in practice, women are taking a major share of the childcare responsibilities along with other household chores. Even though fathers take more leave than they used to, still 1 in 5 fathers do not take any parental leave at all. As consequence, it can lead to discrimination in the labour market and ultimately to ,men earning more than women on average in Finland. Overall it affects gender equality in working life as mothers miss out much of their career years due to childcare responsibilities.

The latest parental leave reform proposed by The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health wants to address those issues. The new reform has clear objectives of equally dividing parental leave, bringing equality in working life and reducing the gender pay gap. This reform proposes the total parental leave period to be 12.8 months (compared to the current 10.5 months) and to be evenly distributed between both parents, with at least two and half months transferable between each other. This reform should come into force in August 2022. This new reform is expected to bring positive change in the attitudes and to help promote wellbeing and gender equality.

2. Role models matter

According to Lammi-Taskula, despite the social progress, mothers are taking the majority of the childcare responsibilities that could be shared between both partners. So, what can be done to encourage more fathers to take an active role in sharing these responsibilities?

Apart from fatherhood ideologies, concept of masculinity, societal barriers and policies; one of the arguments brought up at the event was that it could be encouraged to have relatable role models. That could be from your relatives, peers or someone from the public figure, as in the case of Japanese environment minister, Shinjiro Koizumi who became the first Japanese cabinet minister to take paternity leave.

During the event, Lumme highlighted the importance of having relatable examples. When role models are not visible for fathers, then they should lead by example and take a more active role in promoting fatherhood in their social circles. This will eventually lead to a lasting influence and impact.

parental leave

Fathers taking a more active role in sharing the childcare responsibilities can lead to a change in the culture and attitude towards parental leave. Research shows that fathers who use their parental leave are more likely to continue to be involved after the period of leave has ended. When fathers take parental leave the family’s well being increases.

When fathers take parental leave the family’s well being increases.

If more fathers would take parental leave in the years to come, we could change the societal attitude towards gender roles and stereotypes associated with it. The use of parental leave shows more equal distribution of unpaid work and changes in traditional gender norms. In the long run, future generations growing up in families that advocate for gender equality are more likely to continue these norms.

3. Building a company culture that supports and promotes parental leave

Employers have a role in enabling equal opportunities for all employees to access parental leave. Providing this to everyone regardless of their gender or employment status ensures fairness within the organization.

For companies, it is important to foster an open environment towardsparenthood by normalizing any conversation or practices around it. One practical tip suggested by Livia Hakala was for mothers in the companies to facilitate conversations on parenting and to encourage their male colleagues.

Furthermore, she says that the companies should make sure that the parental leave is not seen as a termination period, rather as an opportunity for employees to grow during that time. Similarly, Hurri shares that at Netlight’s Stockholm office, the employees on parental leave can get an external coach to help them vocalise the learnings from the leave to make it visible and recognizable within the company.

Leaders should be more vocal about the benefits of parental leave as Annica Moore points out. Leadership plays an important role in creating a family friendly culture. They should be the examples, they should step up or take parental leave themselves when the case applies. Organizations with inclusive cultures and good parental leave policies are more effective in attracting and retaining great talent. Even more, having policies that support both maternal and paternal leave, promotes gender equality.

What can companies do to build better company cultures, promote gender equality and encourage parental leave? Here are a few tips:

  • Hire temporary replacements for employees on parental leave. During the event, Moore explains that this process sends a powerful message to the employees that they won’t be overburden with neglected work when they come back.
  • Strengthen the relationship with your employees by keeping in touch with them, checking on their needs and priorities. This, of course depends if the employees want to be contacted during their parental leave. Upon their return they will feel supported and more motivated.
  • When they return from their parental leave help them catch up, put in place workload management processes and create a supportive environment.

4. Sharing parental duties at home

Every family has its own dynamic, thus they have to agree with the framework of their own parenting process and make their own decisions about what works for them. At its core, it is important for both the partners to understand each other’s role in the caregiving process, appreciate its benefits and learn to share the responsibilities with trust. And, It should not be about who is taking more responsibility, rather it should be about having a clear understanding on who does what during the process.

Having said that, mothers might be reluctant in giving the responsibility to the fathers as they might still want to keep their role as a primary caregiver. Lumme emphasizes the need for a support structure where mothers are encouraged and helped with sharing these responsibilities.

Similarly, Moore also highlights the need for a cultural shift. Mothers are expected to have a stronger role in childcare, but they should be able to step back a bit and allow fathers to experience parenthood fully. If not, this could only lead to exhaustion, as it can be hard and lonely. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the importance of sharing parental duties with your partner even though it is going to be hard and it will involve negotiation and sacrifice from both the sides.

According to Hurri, this not only helps to build a foundation for parents’ relationship for years to come but also helps each other to understand their partner’s perspective. Some of the, ways of doing that can be by establishing expectations about parenting, constantly communicating and acknowledging each other’s efforts during the process.

Throughout the process of organizing the event and writing this blog, we acknowledge that we were able to only scratch the surface of this topic. We lacked multiple perspectives of parenting as the panel focused mainly on heterosexual, 2 parent families and the realities may be different to any single/same sex couples.

Even so, we hope that the participants had a chance to better understand the existing parental leave policies in relation with social and cultural aspects. If you couldn’t take part in the even, it can be accessed HERE

Last, but not least, we would like to thank all the audience, speakers and MIB ry for supporting this event.

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