The Question: What good will paid paternity leave do?

Ireland’s new dual parental leave will benefit the whole economy, but we have a long way to go before we match Sweden

Helping hand: everybody in the family benefits when fathers are able to bond with their newborns and help their partners. Photograph: Nicole S Young/E+/Getty

Helping hand: everybody in the family benefits when fathers are able to bond with their newborns and help their partners. Photograph: Nicole S Young/E+/Getty

 

On Father’s Day last weekend Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald confirmed that legislation to introduce the long-awaited paid paternity leave was on track to be passed before the Dáil summer break.

The social-welfare payment of €230 a week for two weeks should be introduced from September.

It was the perfect Father’s Day gift from the State, but it’s not just the country’s future dads who will benefit.

Although it’s self-evident that everybody in the family benefits when fathers are able to bond with their newborns and help their partners, the evidence for the larger economic benefits of parental leave is overwhelming.

But it’s crucial to get the balance right between maternity and paternity leave, as the experiences of other countries have shown. That’s because the economic benefits actually come from encouraging mothers back into the workforce while keeping the birth rate up.

Sweden, that perennial social-scientific laboratory, has set many of the precedents in this area. In 1974 it replaced maternity leave with parental leave that mothers and fathers could divvy up between them, a model that many other countries have now adopted.

Since then Sweden has been tweaking its parental-leave formula to get the balance right: if fathers take less than a month off, parents lose a month of their allotted parental leave; and the state guarantees 90 per cent of a couple’s wages, minimising the effect of income disparity between men and women. Today 90 per cent of Swedish fathers take parental leave, for an impressive average of between three and four months.

One argument for allowing mothers and fathers to take equal parental leave is that the unconscious, or sometimes conscious, biases against mothers in the workforce get evened out when employers realise that all their employees will be taking career breaks to raise children.

At just two weeks’ pay, the paternity leave being introduced here is only a start, and it will take time before the benefits, both economic and cultural, begin to be felt.

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