Flexibility is usually a good thing. We, liberals argue for it in many policy fields: labor market, regulated professions, education, and many others. But is it always the case? Certainly not, when it comes to the parental leave. In some countries (including Poland) parental leave can be fully flexibly divided between both parents. This sounds great, but in reality reinforces gender inequality. Therefore, the Commission has recently proposed the parental leave to become an individual right for mothers and fathers without a transfer of the four months to the other parent.
What the Commission’s proposal means in practice? If one of the parents uses the four months to which she or he is entitled, the other parent will not be able to extend her or his leave for this period. At the same time, the leave should be compensated at least at the level of sick pay, which gives a strong incentive for men to also make use of this possibility. Indeed, the proposal translates into slightly less flexibility for parents in the way they split parental leave, but it can be a real boost on the way to introducing more gender equality in the labor market.
A key factor explaining gender inequality in the labor market is the fact that the burden of raising children is typically much higher for women. Companies maximize profit, so it is understandable that they try to avoid costs which arise if an experienced employee is absent for several months. Therefore, a public policy should be designed in such a way as to equalize the costs and risks associated with parenthood for male and female employees. If women enjoy more generous children-related entitlements, their position in the labor market becomes weaker. Employers are less likely to hire young women or invest in their professional development, if they fear long absence from work, which is not likely for male peers.
This situation does not change a lot when parental leave can be flexibly split, because it is typically women who actually use it. The rasons for this are chiefly cultural, but also economic. Women earn less, so families behave rationally (at least in short-term) if they decide for a break in the mother’s, not the father’s, career. But it’s a vicious cycle: women earn less precisely because employers discount the risk of a carrier break.
This Gordian knot can be cut only by encouraging a more equal usage of parental leave by women and men. Equal entitlements are not sufficient to do the job. And this is precisely the aim of the Commission’s proposal. Earmarking four months of parental leave for fathers (otherwise the entitlement is most likely to be lost) will create strong incentives for families to more equally share parenthood. This should help to overcome cultural barriers and build stronger ties between fathers and their children. In a longer perspective, the risk of parenthood, as perceived by the employers, will no longer apply only to women, thereby one of the key factors underlying female discrimination in the labor market should be significantly weakened.
Earmarking a part of the parental leave for fathers will, of course, not work as a stand-alone instrument. At a national level, it should be embedded in a comprehensive strategy that supports at the same time parenthood and economic activity. It should include, among others, good quality and high accessibility of public care services for children and well-targeted financial support for families. In Poland, the Nowoczesna party proposed a smart alternative to the government’s “500+” program, which offers direct financial support to families with children, regardless of their economic activity. As a consequence, the government’s initiative discouraged women from working.
Instead, Nowoczesna proposes a tax relieve in the same amount to target economically active families and achieve costs savings. When unemployment rate remains low and the risk of labor force shortages is increasing, creating incentives for mothers to remain active in the labor market is not only a matter of gender equality, but also a key instrument to ensure further economic growth.