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“In America there is nothing we wouldn’t do for moms—apart from one major thing,” said John Oliver, a British-born comedian, in his television show, “Last Week Tonight”, on May 10th (Mother’s Day). The “major thing” he was speaking of is paid maternity leave, which, as he pointed out, is standard in all but two of 185 countries surveyed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO): America and Papua New Guinea. In America some women who work for the federal government or larger firms can take 12 weeks’ leave unpaid after giving birth. In a handful of states new mothers get a few weeks at a low wage, funded by a payroll tax. By contrast, in Britain new mothers can take a year off, and during much of it part of their salary is replaced by the government. Sweden grants more than a year’s paid maternity leave—even to women who were not previously employed.
America would do well to take note. Many countries are proud of their maternity leave, and rightly so: the social and economic benefits of making it possible for working mothers to spend time with their newborn children are clear. But many of those countries have failed to follow the argument through to its conclusion. The gains from maternity leave would be multiplied if countries extended it to apply to fathers, too.
Mothers who struggle to combine work with child care often sacrifice work. That lowers their lifetime earnings and leaves them and their children more likely to end up poor. Much of Europe introduced paid maternity leave in the 1970s. Since then dozens of other countries have found that giving new mothers a reasonable amount of time off work—the ILO recommends at least 14 weeks—increases women’s participation in the labour force.
The Papas and the Mamas
But there are problems. Overly generous provision sometimes harms women, rather than helping them. Those who take long spells off work see their skills grow rusty and fail to gain experience and promotions.
Paid paternity leave can help. Nearly half the world’s countries now offer new fathers short periods at home; a growing number let mothers cede some maternity leave to their partners while they go back to work. Several European countries have started to reserve some of that leave for fathers to encourage them to make use of the opportunity: in Sweden couples get an “equality bonus” for splitting their time off more evenly.
Fathers and offspring benefit
When a woman hands her baby to the father and heads out of the door to work, he learns how to be a better parent. The hands-on habits he picks up persist: fathers who take even short paternity leave play a bigger role in child-rearing years later. An international study found that they were more likely to brush their toddlers’ teeth, feed them and read to them. Babies whose fathers take paternity leave go on to do better in cognitive tests at school. Fathers are generally keen on their progeny, so some time to bond with them is a boon. Some men who thought that child care would not be much fun discover that they rather like it.
Mothers are big winners, too. If both sexes are likely to take time off for child care, there is less temptation for employers to discriminate against women. Time-use studies show that even when both parents work the same amount, the mother usually does more child care and housework. More hands-on fathering should cut down on this “second shift”, which is a big reason why many mothers work part-time or in jobs for which they are overqualified.
That leads to gains for society as a whole. Few young women these days expect to have to choose between motherhood and work. In most countries they are now better educated than their male peers, which suggests that careers figure prominently in their plans—and makes losing them from the workforce an even bigger waste. Parental leave that is generous, but not too generous, is essential if mothers are not to be forced out of work by lack of support, or eased out by a surfeit of it. And ensuring that fathers take a share of it minimises the risks and amplifies the gains.
From Leaders – The Economist