During a town-hall event in Hamilton last month, someone asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau what he would do to increase equality between men and women. His answer: mandatory paternity leave.
“I think is a really, really interesting idea. I’m not entirely sure yet how it will absolutely work, but the idea,” he said, is “the father has to take time off to spend with the newborn or else that time just can’t be taken by anyone.”
Trudeau said mandatory leave — sometimes called a “daddy quota” — would send a message that we need to do a better job “sharing the responsibilities of child-rearing.”
While some may bristle at the word “mandatory,” it’s hard to find people who think this is a bad idea. Already in place in at least 10 European countries and in parts of Asia, a Canadian daddy quota seems inevitable.
For decades, men in Canada have had the right to take a portion of parental leave (recently extended up to 18 months), but few do. Outside Quebec, only 9.4 per cent of recent fathers claimed or intended to claim parental leave in 2014, according to Statistics Canada.
In Quebec, which introduced a five-week daddy quota in 2006, the proportion of fathers taking or intending to take time in 2014 was 78.3 per cent — up from 27.8 per cent in 2005. On average, Quebec men now take the full five paid weeks.
On this side of the provincial border, Ottawa dad Chris Read did what most dads do when his two children were born: he saved up vacation days and spent a couple of weeks at home after each birth.
Read, who blogs at CanadianDad.com, says part of the reason he didn’t take any voluntary parental leave was that he didn’t want to take that time away from his wife. He also says there remains a stigma among men when it comes to child-rearing: “I have buddies that say, ‘I’m not changing a diaper.’”
But if “use it or lose it” paid leave just for dads existed, Read says he thinks that stigma would disappear, and fathers would jump at the opportunity to take time away from work.
That seems to have been the case in Sweden: the country reserved a month of parental leave for fathers in 1995, doubled it to two months in 2002, and then raised it to 90 days in 2016. Fathers in Sweden now “take for granted” that they will use at least some of the 16-month parental leave, according to Stockholm University researchers who interviewed dads.
Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says the mandatory leave may also be helping to close the gender pay gap. In Sweden, it fell from about 17 per cent in 1997 to 13 per cent in 2013. In Canada, it declined from 25 per cent to 19 per cent over the same period.
Kaplan says research shows that “most of the gender wage gap” happens when women take substantial chunks of time out of their careers after the arrival of their first children, which causes them to get behind on their skills and be perceived as less suitable for hiring or promotion.
“The only way you change the workplace is if men and women are taking equal time off,” Kaplan says.
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In Sweden, men don’t yet take equal time off — a common arrangement is for mothers to take the first 13 months and fathers to take the last three. Fathers receive a little under 30 per cent of benefits. But dads are taking enough time off that Swedish companies are less likely to see hiring or promoting a woman as a relative disadvantage.
Kaplan thinks that in order for that kind of shift to happen in Canadian workplaces, the mandatory parental leave for fathers would need to be longer than the five weeks on offer in Quebec, a length of time she thinks employers view as more of “an extended vacation.”
But even at five weeks, daddy quotas can change the division of labour within households. Cornell University researcher Ankita Patnaik found a “large and persistent impact on gender dynamics within households” when she looked at data from the General Social Survey, which logs how many minutes Canadians spend per day doing paid and unpaid work. After the introduction of Quebec’s daddy quota, mothers there spent 9 per cent more time doing paid work outside the household than a control group consisting of other Canadian moms and Quebec moms in the pre-quota era. Fathers, meanwhile, were spending 23 per cent more time than the control group doing unpaid work such as taking care of kids and cleaning the house.
Women’s workforce participation rate in Quebec has risen substantially, too — from 82.6 per cent in 2006 to 87.5 per cent in 2017 — while men’s has barely changed (from 91.3 per cent to 91.7 per cent). In Ontario, by contrast, the participation rate has actually declined slightly for women (from 82.8 per cent to 81.2 per cent) and for men (from 91.9 per cent to 90.5 per cent). Quebec’s shift to a more gender-balanced workforce is partially explained by the 1997 introduction of highly subsidized daycare, but the fact that many more Quebec fathers have learned to change diapers may also have something to do with it. And Kaplan points out that more women working is generally good for the economy.
Josh Dehaas is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Maclean’s and the National Post, among others.