Mothers and fathers in Europe are struggling to combine work and family, in some countries more than others. One reason is fathers’ still-low involvement in childcare, which is in part the result of parental leave arrangements that are both limited for men and infrequently taken up by them.
Recent research points to one solution: daddy quotas—non-negligible, non-transferable, use-it-or-lose-it shares of parental leave reserved for fathers. In Finland, Norway, Sweden and Canada, daddy quotas have already begun to reduce work-life conflict and encouraged fathers to get more involved in childcare.
In for example Sweden, a country that successively has increased the total paid parental leave to 480 days, the non-transferable part for either parent was increased this year from 60 to 90 days. Since the start in the mid-70ies, when only 5 % of all leave days were taken by men, their share has slowly increased to about 25 %.
The key in non-transferable leave is that dad cannot pass his share of the leave-cake to mum, which many fathers are inclined to do. The reasons are both social and economic: not only do many societies still see childcare as a task predominantly for mothers, but fathers still also tend to earn much more money.
In a recent plenary debate in the European Parliament, MEP Maria Arena (S&D, BE), rapporteur for the own-initiative report on the EU parental leave framework, stressed transferability.
The discussion revealed that there was no consensus among the political groups, however (or Member States for that matter). This is unfortunate, since better family policies remain a pressing issue – and Europe could play an instrumental role to overcome the current paralysis.
Last year the European Commission had to withdraw its parental leave proposal in the name of “good legislative management” and came up with a Roadmap for a “New Start” adopted in August 2015.
This initiative, including a public consultation was encouraging, but overshadowed by Europe’s ongoing polycrisis (Greece, refugees, and Europe’s lurch to the right). In the plenary debate, Commissioner Věra Jourová, in whose portfolio parental leave rests, informed of a second round of public consultation later this year, so things are moving.
Indeed, mothers and fathers would benefit from new policy approaches, and it wouldn’t be the first time the European Commission succeeded on a demographic issue. The fact that the debate on later retirement due to longer lives accelerated in Member States, and turned into concrete action, was also due to persistent pressure from the Commission.
It’s a good window of opportunity to come up with new proposals to improve citizens’ work-life balance, like daddy quotas, that will foster gender equality, increase productivity, decrease income inequality, improve quality of life, help couples to have the children they want, and lead to better educational outcomes of children. The case for EU action hasn’t changed.
If anything it’s stronger than ever. National work-life balance measures will diverge according to Member States’ differing demographic, political and labour-market realities. In May, the German cabinet agreed on a bill to reform maternity leave and extend it to school and university students.
Some Member States will move on while others stay put, but divergence in such a fundamental policy area will severely limit the scope of single market convergence in the future. Harmonisation of legislation would clearly be a huge step forward, but many Member State do not want to harmonise at all.
There is a political element, too, though. By addressing issues like parental leave that directly affect millions of citizens, and pushing Member States to implement innovative policies, the Commission could not only help fathers and mothers, but also show again that Europe can be a leader for necessary reform.