Behind extension of paternity leave in Europe, a generational change

Colette Davidson
Alice and James Hagger pose for a photo at home in Paris, Sept. 19, 2021. The couple is trying to find their rhythm as Mr. Hagger goes back to work after taking advantage of France's new measure that extends paternity leave to 28 days.

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While U.S. federal law mandates no paid family leave, it’s a different story in Europe, and not just for working mothers. Paternity leave is increasingly the norm. And a European Union law that takes effect next year requires all member states to provide a minimum of 10 days to fathers.  

France and Spain already exceed this minimum, the result of a generational change that has shaped public policy. In Spain, fathers now get 16 weeks off, fully paid. 

Why We Wrote This

Rethinking paternity leave requires not only expanding benefits but also incentivizing a greater uptake by men of statutory benefits. Spain and France are showing how this could be done.

Advocates say paid paternity leave can help to close the childcare gender divide. Studies show that early involvement by fathers leads to more equitable sharing of parental duties and that increased father-child bonding promotes infant development, says Ariane Pailhé, a researcher in Paris. “This last argument has been particularly convincing for politicians.”

James Hagger took a month off this summer to help take care of his newborn son. Now he’s back at work in Paris. Still, he wishes he had longer. “It’s as if the government thinks that after one month, everything is sorted out,” he says. 

Alice and James Hagger seem surprisingly bright-eyed after a month of little to no sleep. As their newborn son dozes angelically in a stroller, they order coffees and croissants at their neighborhood cafe in Paris. Ms. Hagger has just dropped off their 3-year-old son at his preschool. Mr. Hagger is spiffed up to go to work, his first week back after a month of paid paternity leave.

“I’m in total parental burnout,” says Mr. Hagger, who runs a production company in the French capital.

He benefited from a new French measure that went into effect July 1 that doubled the length of paternity leave to 28 days. The increase puts France on par with five of Europe’s most generous countries in providing paternity leave.

Why We Wrote This

Rethinking paternity leave requires not only expanding benefits but also incentivizing a greater uptake by men of statutory benefits. Spain and France are showing how this could be done.

The couple still wishes that Mr. Hagger had more time off. “The other morning, I was about to leave for work and I saw Alice’s face, how much she was struggling to handle everything, and I called to say I wasn’t coming in,” he says. 

“With a second child there’s more work to do,” says Ms. Hagger. “A month is too short.”

Paternity leave is in sharp focus across Europe ahead of a deadline next April for European Union nations to provide a minimum of 10 days leave for all new fathers. France and Spain already exceed this minimum: Spanish fathers now qualify for four months off with full pay. 

These progressive policies, experts say, reflect generational changes in both societies, as well as serious thinking into how workplace laws can help to close the childcare gender divide by prodding fathers to use their leave in full. The shift is driven both by labor economics – the financial support that parents need to stay in the workforce – and research into the crucial role that at-home fathers play in infant development. Studies show that early involvement by fathers leads to more equitable sharing of parental and other household duties over time. 

“For several years now, feminists, women, and researchers, but also fathers, have taken a stand in favor of paternity leave,” says Ariane Pailhé, a senior researcher on work-family balance and gender at the National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED) in Paris. “This decision reflects a change in the perception of fatherhood. There is an underlying trend towards active parenthood and fatherhood.”

The experience of Scandinavian countries and Germany shows that paternity leave promotes greater father-child bonding. “This last argument has been particularly convincing for politicians,” she adds. 

Adding up the costs

Paternity leave policy varies widely across the world. In the U.S., it is an unpaid option rather than a federal right, though several states have introduced paid paternity leave. The average leave for fathers in wealthy nations is eight weeks, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Advocates say the economics of paid family leave add up, as seen in the experience of countries like Sweden and Finland, which have expanded parental leave for men and women for the past two decades without sinking their economies.

“It pays for itself,” says Gary Barker, chief executive of Promundo, a U.S.-based nonprofit which studies global fatherhood trends. “It doesn’t keep men back in their careers. We don’t stop being productive because we take off the extra time.” 

Mr. and Ms. Hagger would like to see more flexibility given to working French parents with small children, including the option to work part time after their statutory leave ends. Mr. Hagger complains he spent his month off dealing with paperwork and is still in “survival mode.” 

“It’s strange. It’s as if the government thinks that after one month, everything is sorted out,” says Mr. Hagger. “Sometimes it seems like the laws are made by people who’ve never had children.”

Courtesy of Miguel La Orden
Miguel La Orden plays with his 3-year-old daughter Ana and 6-month-old son Jorge at a playground near his apartment in Madrid.

Enjoying a relaxed, summer, poolside afternoon with his wife, 3-year-old daughter Ana, and baby boy, Miguel La Orden knew his life in Madrid was about to get hectic. His wife went back to work in mid-August so he is overseeing the transition of Ana to preschool while his son Jorge, who was born in February, settles into daycare. 

Come November, Mr. La Orden will return to his job as a health care economist. “By the time I get back to work, they will have had a chance to settle in,” he says. “[Paternity leave] is a right that belongs to me and I would be stupid to waste it,” he says. 

He and his wife have equal parental time off and benefits thanks to a Spanish law that came into effect in January 2021. The law provides 16 weeks of leave to fathers that can be taken in chunks: Mr. La Orden stayed home for eight weeks right after his son was born and saved the rest for after his wife resumed her publishing job.   

“There is greater awareness today that parenting is a shared task ... and this type of leave helps push that forward,” says Mr. La Orden. 

And time with a newborn is priceless. “Seeing how he starts to develop, move, and make gestures, those are definitely things I would not have wanted to miss because I am working,” he adds. 

Spain’s four months of fully paid parental leave is more generous than that of Nordic countries like Sweden and Iceland, which offer 12 weeks at 80% of salaries. Mr. La Orden’s salary is also untaxed while he’s a stay-at-home dad. “I get more money than if I were at the office,” he says.

Centuries of Spanish machismo may die hard, but social policy is pushing in the opposite direction, says Gerardo Meil, head of sociology at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. “Ten years ago, it was unthinkable that paternity leave would be equal to maternity leave in Spain,” he says. “The unequal sharing of family responsibilities is decreasing over time.”

Dividing family leave

Nordic countries, however, still offer more time overall than Spain as they provide several weeks that can be taken either by the mother or father. By contrast, Spain gives both parents the same benefits. 

“Nordic countries have configured leave on the basis of the family,” says Irene Lapuerta Méndez, professor at the department of social work at the Public University of Navarra in Spain. Whereas “the goal [of Spanish policymakers] is to motivate fathers to use” all their leave.

Dr. Mendez says international studies suggest men make very little use of caregiving leave when the pay is less than 80% of their salary and when this is configured as family rights rather than individual rights. 

“No country in the world configures vacation rights on the basis of the family and asks couples to figure out how they will take it. Why should it be less when it comes to rights around childcare?” she asks.

Mr. Barker says that the two policies that work best in terms of getting men to change diapers and burp babies are subsidized child care and expanded paternity leave. Companies in Europe that already cover maternity leave must get used to doing the same for men taking paternity leave, he adds. 

“The main issue is the worry in men’s heads that we won’t seem like competitive, dedicated workers, that our income and our critical career trajectories will suffer if we take extended leave,” says Mr. Barker.

Pushback in the workplace

While Spain and France have both seen men take a greater role in child raising, experts say men still tend to put their careers first and do not take all their statutory leave. While the effects of expanded leave for fathers haven’t been studied, Spain previously had a higher uptake of leave than France, according to 2019 data compiled by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. In general, the likelihood of men taking leave increases with the number of children that they have fathered. 

Mr. Hagger owns his company so he doesn’t face pushback for taking extended leave. Ms. Hagger, however, says she’s worked with men who have been chastised for taking time off. Her brother-in-law was pressured into taking his paternity leave later in the year, even after his wife gave birth to twins. “His boss said, ‘Now is not a good time. You can take it in six months,’” she says.

That wouldn’t fly under France’s new policy, which mandates paternity leave must be granted during the first week after birth. This could have an impact on career trajectories: Studies show the more children French women have the more likely they are to exit the workforce. But men are more likely to be promoted because they are perceived as the primary breadwinners.

And while new fathers may be at home more, the greater burden still falls on their female partners, says Dr. Pailhé, of INED. “Gender stereotypes are still very strong [in France], care work is still perceived as feminine while playing and horseplay are perceived as masculine.”

Still, the law reflects social changes in France that elevate the parenting responsibilities of fathers.

“There’s been a progressive repositioning of fatherhood since the 1970s. Back then, we heard the term ‘the new father’ – aka, the father who invested time in his children,” says Gérard Neyrand, a sociology professor at the University of Toulouse, who studies family life and parenthood. “Now, that concept is the norm, in all strata of the French population.”

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