Fathers fail to use full parental leave entitlement

According to figures published in February 2001, Danish men prefer to work instead of taking the parenthood-related leave to which they are entitled (a potential total of 66 weeks). On average, male employees are absent from work for only about two weeks in the course of the first two years of their child's life. In comparison, women are on average absent from work for nearly 45 weeks in connection with pregnancy and maternity leave. The Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) is calling for a change in attitudes among both enterprises and employees, and proposing improvements in men's possibilities for taking parental leave, including better financial compensation.

Danish men do not fully utilise their rights to take parental leave. Under the various current schemes, a father may take leave for a total period of 66 weeks, including childcare leave of up to 52 weeks. However, under 4% of fathers do so. On average, men take only 2.2 weeks of leave during the first two years of the child's life, while women take 44.8 weeks of leave on average.

These figures are the result of new calculations made by the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) on the basis of figures from Statistics Denmark (Danmarks Statistik) and the National Labour Market Authority (Arbejdsmarkedsstyrelsen). The research - which was published in LO's Udspilnewsletter on 8 February 2001 - forms part of a series of studies carried out in connection with the 25th anniversary of the Danish Act on equal pay for men and women. The Ministry of Labour has used this anniversary as an occasion to draft a proposal for new equal pay legislation (DK0012106N). The proposed new legislation - which will allow a higher degree of transparency about wage data - is supported by the social partners.

It has for many years been possible for new fathers to stay at home on full pay for two weeks after the birth of a child, and since 1998 fathers have also been entitled to leave (during which they receive the equivalent of sickness benefit) for the 25th and 26th week after the birth. However, an astonishingly large group of new fathers do not exploit this possibility. The LO calculations indicate that 56% of fathers take leave for the first two weeks, while only 16% stay at home in weeks 25 and 26. The parents may, furthermore, divide the last 10 weeks of the mother's maternity leave of 24 weeks among them, as they prefer. Only 2% of fathers take over the mother's leave. Finally, it is possible for men (as for women) to take parental leave for up to 12 months (again receiving the equivalent of sickness benefit), but less than 4% have taken up this possibility. On the whole, men are absent from work for an average of only 2.2 weeks; this is less than 4% of the total maximum period of 66 weeks' leave which fathers may take.

Mothers stay at home for nearly one year

The picture is different for women, who have to a great extent used the possibility of taking parental leave on top of the traditional maternity leave. It is, furthermore, a characteristic feature that most women take leave before the birth, and are absent from the labour market on average for a total period of 44.8 weeks in connection with pregnancy and maternity leave. This is more than half of the maximum possible period of 76 weeks of parenthood-related leave available for women.

This pattern is closely related to the problems with which individual women and the family are confronted with in connection with childbirth. Women's use of parental leave in direct continuation of the period of maternity leave reflects the problem of finding good childcare facilities. The reason why it is in most cases the mothers who stay at home to look after children is, to a large extent, because this means that the family's financial loss is thereby smaller than it would be if the father took parental leave.

LO emphasises in connection with its new study another perceived problem - that enterprises fail to design the workplace and organise work in a manner which would avoid a situation whereby many women report sick during the pregnancy. Some of the absence of women prior to the birth is due to the fact that collective agreements in the public sector give large groups of women a right to absence from work for up to eight weeks before the expected date of confinement. However, by no means all women have this right and it is noteworthy that the average actual period of absence before the birth (8.5 weeks) is higher than the eight weeks set by those collective agreements which provide for the highest number of weeks of absence before the birth.

Longer leave with wage compensation

According to LO, the fact that women are to an extreme degree forced out of the labour market in connection with pregnancy and childbirth is a major cause of the lack of equal opportunities on the labour market. This massive absence means that women make up a less stable labour force, and this is reflected in poorer career prospects, lower rates of participation in vocational education and continuing training and lower wages.

For LO, the solution is, quite simply, to give men better possibilities of taking part in family care in the form of better leave rights and a higher degree of financial compensation during absence from work. In a future extension of parental leave rights, it could be an objective to reserve a longer period solely for men. LO thus proposes that fathers should have a right to 14 weeks' absence with full wages following on from the mother's present 24 weeks' maternity leave - instead of two weeks, as at present. This new right should be given only to fathers and not be taken over by the mothers.

Commentary

At a recent conference held by the Ministry of Labour on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the equal pay Act, the president of LO, Hans Jensen, stated that the lack of equal pay between men and women is to a large extent due to the fact that men fail to take leave when they become fathers. The reason for this is that men typically have higher incomes and this explains why most men go on working during the first year of the child's life.

The background for this situation is that the financial aspects of childbirth-related leave are not attractive, especially if the man has the higher income in a couple. Full wage compensation is given during the first two weeks of the father's leave, while the two weeks' leave when the child is six months old is compensated only at the level of sickness benefits. The same applies to the other parental leave schemes. A good financial standing is thus required if parents are to take childcare leave for up to 12 months. Of the 29,533 people on childcare leave during the second quarter of 2000, only 8% were men. The result is that the woman stays at home and is thus absent from work for long periods of time. This has an influence on the recruitment of staff by enterprises and also an impact on wages. Longer parental leave for men with a higher degree of wage compensation would, undoubtedly, result in more men choosing to stay at home. This - according to LO's argument - would lead to equal pay for men and women. It would, at least, be major step in the direction of the change in attitudes which is necessary in order to obtain genuine equality on the labour market; the proposed amendment of the equal pay Act will not in itself do the trick. (Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS)

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