Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi’s statement last week that paternity leave would be “just a holiday” because men “won’t do anything (for the child)”, drew accusations of female chauvinism and misandry. Men often don’t avail of even already available leave to share the responsibilities brought by the newborn child, the Minister said.
She has a point — while there are indeed men who split all household work, including childcare, with their wives, they remain outliers, and are not representative of the norm.
In India, the labour force participation rate — percentage of the population that is employed or actively looking for work — is 27% for women and 80% for men. The Human Development Index, 2015, notes that most countries showed an upward trend in the labour force participation rate for women. Yet, globally, it registered a drop — mostly due to the sharp decline in India, which in 1990 stood at 35%.
Paid work by women in India is 160 minutes per day, as against 360 minutes by men. On the other hand, when it comes to unpaid work — mainly childrearing and caregiving to the elderly — women devote 297 minutes, almost 10 times the time that men spend on these activities, which is 31 minutes per day.
A decent paternity leave policy may not entirely offset the imbalance, but it could act as a precursor to incremental attitudinal changes, and the blurring of gender role distinctions. A 2016 Case Western Reserve University study of 44 countries found that those with generous paternity leave policies also showed higher gender equity.
Implicit in Gandhi’s statement also is the fact that the sociocultural construct of parenthood in India continues to see the mother as the primary caregiver.
In developed nations too, there is empirical evidence to show that there has been a low take-up of leave by fathers — especially when it is offered in the form of a shared and transferable entitlement, i.e., “parental leave”. A Europe-centric study published earlier this year documented the percentage of women versus men who utilised their portion of paid transferable leave: 96/0.6% in Austria, 90/1.4% in the Czech Republic, 94/24% in Denmark, 80/4% in Estonia, 100/12% in Finland, 25/4% in Italy, 50/2.5% in Poland, 100/5.6% in Slovenia and 98.4/1.6% in Spain.
Even Scandinavian countries, which are by far the most progressive in this regard, have fared poorly in the past. Governments responded by finetuning policies over the years, starting with the introduction of “father’s quota” to incentivise men to make use of their entitlement. When Sweden introduced two months of non-transferable paid paternity leave and made it an eligibility criterion for families to receive government parenting benefits, the number of men taking the leave shot up from 40% to 70%.
A similar trend of gradual increase in the participation of men in childcare was observed in Norway and Iceland. Norway offers 10 weeks of non-transferable paternity leave, while Iceland is the only country that gives an equal three months’ non-transferable leave to each parent, apart from an additional three months, which can be divided between the two parents.
As per International Labour Organisation (ILO) data, paternity leave is paid leave in 70 of the 78 countries that have leave entitlements for new fathers; in more than half of these, the wages are entirely an employer liability, while in a quarter, it comes from social security.
Non-transferability works to increase uptake by fathers, who are viewed as primary breadwinners, only if decent pay is provided during the leave period. So, in Australia, which provides only minimum wage during the leave period, not even half of fathers take paternity leave, and among the few who do, not all avail of their entire two weeks.
In Denmark, where there is a cap on the salary that can be paid, only a quarter of fathers take paternity leave. The highest percentage of men’s use of non-transferable parental leave — where men take between 80% and 90% of their entitlement — is seen in countries where 100% pay is offered.
Studies by both the Union Labour and Women and Child Development Ministries have suggested that longer maternity leave will increase the burden of childcare for women, bias employers against hiring women, and make it difficult for mothers to re-enter the labour market. The new Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, recognises childcare as a collective responsibility by making it mandatory for organisations with over 50 employees to have a crèche. However, merely doubling the maternity leave to 26 weeks by itself may actually prove to be inimical to gender equity. Unless it takes the next logical step towards introduction of paternity leave legislation, the policy will remain inchoate.