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8 March, 2022updated 12 Aug 2022 15:48

Marina Leiva

Opinion: Want to close the gender pay gap? Introduce equal parental leave

Without equal parental leave, equality cannot be reached and the gender pay gap will continue to blight companies the world over.

A woman’s earnings rise by about 7% for every month of paternity leave taken by her husband, writes Joeli Brearley in her book Pregnant Then Screwed. This eye-opening piece of data stems from the findings of a study in Sweden, which pointed at the lack of equality in parental leave as one of the main factors behind the gender pay gap.

Meanwhile, equal parental leave, or proper work leave for the secondary caregiver, remains a rarity globally. Gender equality cannot be reached if care duties – including bringing up children – are not equally distributed. 

”The argument that mothers are the natural caregivers is completely unfounded by scientific research,” writes Brearley. “Women do the hard graft of growing the baby and giving birth, and some women breastfeed, but beyond that both sexes are just as capable of caring for babies and children.”

Out-of-date thinking lets everyone down

It is 2022, and Brearley should not have to waste ink explaining why caregiving duties can be undertaken by anybody, but here we are. The worst thing about it? Men do want to take care of their children, but the lack of policies in place, along with the sometimes toxic sexist culture in companies, is making it hard for them to do so. 

In 2017, insurance company Aviva introduced an equal parental leave policy to their UK employees, giving secondary caregivers the choice – and the chance – to spend time with their new children. Unsurprisingly, the policy has been well received by its employees. In 2020, 99% of new Aviva dads took parental leave, with 84% taking at least six months, according to Aviva.

The lack of such policies that help spread care duties equally among partners tends to inevitably translate to women bearing the brunt of childcare, which obviously comes with negative repercussions in terms of pay

The pay gap among mothers gets worse consistently for 12 years after the first child is born, by which point women receive 33% less pay per hour than men, according to research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, as quoted by Brearley in her book. 

International companies must introduce equal parental leave policies

Although ultimately the onus to make such things right should be on governments, because it is simply unfair that someone’s parental experience should be dependent on the policies of their workplace, private companies can help by taking meaningful action that will bring a push for nationwide change. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about a so-called ‘great resignation‘. For many, being cooped up for months on end at home during lockdowns shone a light on the importance of work flexibility and work-life balance, especially for parents.  

This is where international companies can make a difference – and some are already taking note. In 2021, Volvo Cars announced equal parental leave for all its employees across the globe, inspired by the more inclusive policies in the company’s home country of Sweden. 

“We want to create a culture that supports equal parenting roles for all genders,” said CEO Håkan Samuelsson in a press release. “When parents are supported to balance the demands of work and family, it helps to close the gender gap and allows everyone to excel in their careers.”

Other international companies such as Etsy and Spotify (the latter also Swedish) have similar equal parental leave policies in place for employees on a global level, but more need to join in, as there is really no room for avoiding introducing such policies in 2022. This counts double for companies that blurt out empty promises and token efforts once a year on 8 March, International Women’s Day, only to then forget about such issues for the other 364 days of the year. If the likes of Aviva, Etsy and Volvo can do it, what is your company’s excuse for sticking with its outdated system? 

It is not just parental leave policies that need amending; such action should also be taken to support employees who are dealing with fertility issues or pregnancy loss. If companies truly want employees to believe in their desire to build a better future, it is time they stepped up their parental policies. It is embarrassing to see companies in 2022 ‘offering’ the bare minimum.

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