The most important step toward solving the problem of gender inequality is not, as many believe, creating a society in which women behave more like men but rather a society in which men behave more like women. The new parental-leave policies announced in yesterday’s federal budget may give Canadian men a much-needed nudge in that direction, but it won’t undo the annoyingly persistent belief that raising children is woman’s work.
But we have to start somewhere.
The new Parental Sharing Benefit gives new parents between five and eight additional weeks of parental leave, if that leave is split between two parents. Parents who opt for the standard option (35 weeks of parental leave at a benefit rate of 55 per cent of the parent’s average weekly insurable earnings up to a maximum amount) could extend their benefit to 40 weeks when a father opts to take five weeks leave. Parents who opt for the new, extended, option (61 weeks of parental leave at a benefit rate of 33 per cent of the parent’s average weekly insurable earnings up to a maximum amount) could extend their benefit to 69 weeks when a father opts to take eight weeks leave.
The argument on how this benefit helps achieve the goal of parity for women in the work force looks something like this:
Women currently contribute more time than men to the work of raising children. Because of this, women require more flexible work environments that help them to balance their work and home lives. That need for flexibility reduces both women’s wages and employment.
Fathers who spend time caring for their newborns will not only bond more with their children, but will develop capabilities in parenting that will extend throughout childhood. These men will take a greater share of responsibility for raising children and, like women, seek out more flexible work environments that allow them to balance their work and home lives.
Employers would (ideally) adapt to the changing demands of their employees and provide more flexible workplaces for all workers, and that would even the playing field for women. This sounds ambitious, but it is a goal worth pursuing.
There are a couple of reasons why the proposed policy is likely to fall short, and reasonable ways those issues could be addressed.
Commentators have been quick to point out that a similar leave program in Quebec encouraged 80 per cent of eligible men to take parental leave in 2016 – far more than the scarce 12 per cent who took leave in the rest of Canada. But a Quebec father who earns $80,000 a year can expect to receive about $5,336 in benefits over the course of a five-week paternity leave. A similar father in Ontario under the standard parental leave plan (35 weeks) would receive roughly $2,735 for the extra five weeks and a father under the extended plan (61 weeks) would only receive $1,640 for his five-week leave.
The first issue, then, is how many Canadian families will actually be able to afford to participate in this program? With benefits this low, we shouldn’t expect numbers even remotely near those seen in Quebec, and in other countries with similar programs.
The second issue is that, right now, it is unclear whether or not mothers and fathers will be allowed to take their leave at the same time. Men will not learn to take care of their child if they use their parental leave to “help out” a mother who is continuing to do most of the work. Developing confidence among men to parent alone is key to the success of this program.
At the same time, however, the prospect of caring for a newborn alone is daunting for anyone, and many fathers might be hesitant to take up that responsibility.
One way to address this problem, and help generate the move to a more flexible work force, would be to allow families to find more creative ways to share the leave. For example, perhaps the leave could be set up so that parents could split their time over the workweek; one day mom stays home while dad works, the next day dad stays home while mom works. Let families find the flexible arrangements that suit them best. The advantage of this flexibility is that when the parents return to work full time they have already established a system of shared responsibility.
Finally, this: Is the problem here really fathers? Or is the problem that Canadian workplaces are not flexible enough to accommodate workers who have children – regardless of the worker’s gender. Because until that happens, the employment problems created by the need for women to arrange their lives around children won’t really be solved. You are just spreading the problem experienced by one parent over two.
This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.