What the United States Can Learn From Other Nations on Paid Leave Policy

Oct 13, 2021, 1:00 PM, Posted by

Policies like paid leave are working to advance gender equity at work and at home in other nations. We just need to expand them here in the United States.

Parents hold their infant child.

"We are one of the only countries in the world that doesn't offer paid family and medical leave to those who need it."  —Robert Espinoza, Vice President of the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute

A study by Better Life Lab and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reconfirms that the U.S. status quo of gender roles, both at work and home, is not working for many families. Men are missing out on caretaking roles that enrich their lives and enhance the bonds with loved ones, while women are struggling with role overload, feeling unsupported and missing out on income and economic mobility.

In contrast to the U.S., many nations are advancing gender equity through solutions that benefit health, child development, family well-being, and advance racial equity, like paid leave. The United States can learn from the experiences of other nations that are implementing paid leave policies and find approaches that encourage fathers to take advantage of these policies.

A Vicious Cycle: Lack of Gender Equity at Both Home and at Work

Many gender inequities are rooted in deeply held cultural norms that also influence how men and women are treated differently in the workplace and in the expectation of who should be primary caregivers. In the United States, the gender pay gap starts early. Male-dominated fields, like computer engineering, pay far more than female-dominated professions, like care work. In addition, research continues to find pay gaps between men and women in the same role with the same education and experience levels. One study found that 38 percent of the pay gap is unexplainable, and could likely be the result of gender bias. On top of it all, the United States has a “motherhood penalty” and a “fatherhood bonus,” where men start making far more money and women start earning sharply less when they become parents.

Studies show that employers often perceive mothers as less committed, competent or available, and by extension, less financially valuable. Alternatively, men typically see a 12 percent increase in pay after they become fathers. In the end, married mothers with at least one child under age 18, earn 76 cents to a married father’s dollar. If a woman is unmarried, has more children, or is a woman of color, the gap only widens.

As a result, at home, women spend about twice the amount of time providing care and doing housework as men, while men spend more time at work. This “double shift,” where women work a full day at the office before returning home to hours of domestic labor, hasn’t budged in decades. Additionally, unlike every other advanced competitive economy, the United States does not have a paid maternity leave policy, and is one of only seven wealthy nations with no paid paternity leave policy. Private companies are not filling much of this gap. Eight in ten workers in the civilian workforce in the United States have no paid family leave benefits through their employers at all, with low-wage workers least likely to have access to any benefit.

Shifting Gender Norms Through Policy

In contrast, countries around the world are carefully designing public policy to shift antiquated gender norms, and the financial disincentives that reinforce them. For instance, when paid parental leave was introduced in Sweden, the first iteration of the policy was gender neutral, meaning that either parent could accept any portion of the leave. Yet, because of social norms around care, mothers wound up taking the bulk of the leave, which disadvantaged them at work. Some employers were reluctant to hire young women, and many women wound up working either part-time or in the public sector.

With an eye toward fostering true gender equity, lawmakers redesigned paid leave policies with individual entitlements. Rather than a gender-neutral default, each parent received a specific amount of leave. That meant that if fathers did not take their portion of leave, the balance could not be transferred to the mother, and the family would lose out on maximizing the overall amount of time a baby spent with their parents at home.

This “use it or lose it” policy change resulted in Swedish paternity leave acceptance rates skyrocketing from 5 to 90 percent within a few short years. Cultural norms began shifting as well. Being a good father came to mean spending time with family and using the paid leave allotment, rather than doubling down at work. Global gender equity rankings show that these and other reforms have narrowed the gender pay gap in Sweden, while the time men and women spend at work and giving care is becoming more equal.

Meanwhile, in Japan, good policy is only one piece of the gender equity puzzle. To affect change, cultural narratives, mindsets and workplace norms also must shift. Japan has one of the most generous paid leave policies for men, yet even after concerted efforts to get men to take it, only about 7 percent actually do. Even those who accept the benefit usually take it only for a few weeks, not the full year that’s guaranteed. According to some studies, these men are afraid that taking time to care for their families would damage their careers. This is where fielding surveys, discussing barriers, and sharing stories of pioneering men who normalize male caregiving can help. Research has found that, because gender equity is not openly addressed, men in Japan want to be more active caregivers, but are worried that they will be ostracized for doing so.

Other nations may want to take notice of Sweden’s nuanced approach, and design incentives that specifically account for the gender bias that makes so many men hesitant to be active caregivers. When the policies are carefully designed to account for the cultural resistance and stigma associated with men investing their attention and energy into their children, they are especially effective.

When cultural stigma and financial punishments are removed, men can and do engage in care work. For instance, our research found that men anticipate needing time off of work to care for a loved one at the same rate that women do. The difference, however, is that many men don’t feel they can follow through on fulfilling those caregiving needs, and women feel they have no choice, taking time off even when it’s unpaid because someone must give care.

As the world has already shown us, real solutions to support men, women, and people of all genders who care are not out of reach here. We—as a nation—just have to be willing to find them and make them a reality.

Explore four additional ways of supporting men in solving America’s caregiving crisis.


About the Authors

Brigid Schulte is the director of the Better Life Lab, the work-family justice and gender equity program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank, that uses narrative to move public policy, workplace practice and culture so that people of all genders and racial and ethnic identities can thrive, with decent, dignified work and time for care and connection across the arc of their lives.

Jennifer Ng’andu, managing director–Program, at RWJF, helps lead grantmaking activities to advance social and environmental changes that help ensure that all children and their families have the full range of opportunities and resources to lead healthy lives, starting from a child’s earliest years.