memorandum by Mr Rigoni, rapporteur
“When a child is born,
men are still entitled to only two weeks paternity leave. These
rules patronise women and marginalise men. They’re based on a view
of life in which mothers stay at home and fathers are the only breadwinners.
That’s an Edwardian system which has no place in 21st century Britain.
... More and more fathers want to play a hands-on role with their
young children. But too many feel that they just can’t. That culture
1 These were the words that the Deputy Prime Minister,
Nick Clegg, used in 2011 to announce an overhaul of the system of
parental leave in the United Kingdom. I find these remarks particularly
telling and applicable to the reality in Europe today.
2 More and more men play an active role in the care and upbringing
of their children, from their youngest age. This corresponds to
an evolution of individual behaviour, moving towards the overcoming
or at least the blurring of traditional gender roles.
According to research conducted in the United Kingdom, nowadays
fathers spend 800% more time with their children than they did in
proportion of stay-at-home fathers, although still small, has also increased:
in 2011, “62 000 were classed as ‘economically inactive’ and at
home looking after children, tripling from 21 000 in 1996. The figures
did not include fathers working from home or part-time in order
to be the main stay-at-home parent. A survey … from the insurance
company Aviva suggested there could be 600 000 men, 6% of British
fathers, in that role, a further rise from the … figures which recorded
192 000 British men as the primary carer for children in 2009 and
119 000 in 1993”.Note
4 The present report focuses on parental leave, which is the
leave granted to parents, irrespective of their sex, for the care
of a child. The gender-neutral nature of parental leave makes it
an invaluable instrument to ensure that both men and women share
rights and responsibilities regarding their children’s care and upbringing.
It also makes it applicable to same-sex families, which represent
an increasing share of households in Europe.
5 Policies on parental leave vary considerably amongst Council
of Europe member States. This report will cast a light on the most
developed and effective models, with a view to promoting best practices.
It will also propose measures to ensure that parental leave is not
only a good policy on paper but that it is effectively used, especially
6 In the preparation of the report, I conducted a fact-finding
visit to Sweden, as I deemed it useful to collect information from
the country where parental leave was “invented” as far back as 1974.
My interlocutors during this visit – members of both the government
and the parliament, as well as representatives of academia and non-governmental
organisations – supplied valuable first-hand information on the
actual implementation of parental leave and its impact on Swedish
society. I made use of this information to understand the potential
of parental leave schemes both in Sweden and across Europe and to
identify best practices to include in the draft resolution.
7 I wish to thank once again the Swedish delegation, both parliamentarians
and the secretariat, for their warm hospitality and the perfect
organisation of the visit.
parental, maternity and paternity leave
Social security systems offer different kinds of
leave linked to childcare. There are two main approaches:
- one, older and more widespread,
is the traditional system of “maternity leave” intended only for
- the other extends the right to leave to fathers, by introducing
either a birth-related leave which can be taken only by men (“paternity
leave”), or a “parental leave”, which is gender-neutral (both mothers
and fathers are eligible) but often has periods reserved for mothers
or fathers only.
9 These approaches are not mutually exclusive: in many countries,
parental leave does not replace but rather follows maternity leave.
As it is not linked only to childbirth and infant care, parental
leave is also of longer duration.
10 As it is linked to pregnancy and childbirth, maternity leave
is traditionally considered mostly as a health measure. Parental
leave is rather a social policy measure. It is also very clearly
a tool for improving gender balance and reconciling work and family
11 Increasing gender equality is an objective for households
and society at large. Parental leave allows more time for fathers
to take care of newborn, young or newly adopted children. It allows
a departure from traditional gender roles in the family – women
as caregivers and men as breadwinners. This type of leave can have
an impact on the balance of work and family life both for women
and men, and on the implementation of shared responsibility between
parents. It can also help achieve more equality between women and
men at work by mitigating one of the main reasons for discrimination
3 What has changed
in the last ten years
The Assembly has taken position in support of parental
leave on many occasions. The first time it dealt with parental issues
was in its Resolution
on equality of rights between men and women, in which it
invited member States to introduce the principle of parental leave
into their legislation, as well as the concept of paid leave for
one of the parents for the purpose of looking after their children.
This recommendation was reiterated in 2002, when the Assembly
adopted a more comprehensive text, Resolution 1274 (2002)
, in which it asked Council of Europe member States to:
- enact laws encouraging parental
responsibility by means of part-time work and flexible working time, including
- take necessary steps to assist parents in returning to
employment after a period of parental leave;
- launch awareness-raising campaigns about the need for
systems of help with childcare;
- set up childcare centres.
Reading the explanatory memorandum to Resolution 1274
, more than ten years later, I realise that there
has been a considerable effort on the part of Council of Europe
member States to introduce parental leave schemes and even to expand
the eligibility criteria. However, the greatest challenge remains
the implementation of policies and legislation, in two respects:
- there are large disparities
in the take-up of parental leave in Council of Europe member States;
- there is an imbalance between women and men in the use
of parental leave.
4 Gender breakdown
of the take-up of parental leave
Child-related leave schemes vary considerably across
Europe and are difficult to compare. Take-up rates also vary depending
on a number of factors, such as whether leave is paid or not and
eligibility criteria for parents. These criteria may be related
to the type of work contract, as self-employed workers and those
with a temporary contract are not always eligible, or the nature
of the employer, since smaller companies may be exempted from leave
policies. In addition, as the “Leave Network” experts underline,
data on non-paid leave is not available.Note
Parental leave is still mostly taken by mothers. Within the
European Union, take-up rates for women are very high in the Nordic
countries, in central European countries such as the Czech Republic,
Hungary and Poland, but also in Germany and Italy. Rates are more
moderate (between one third and two thirds of mothers) in France,
the Netherlands and Spain. In countries where parental leave is
unpaid, for example in Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and the
United Kingdom, rates are much lower.Note
17 Parental leave take-up rates for fathers compared with mothers
show an inconsistent pattern. They are relatively high in Nordic
countries, but in a number of other countries with high take-up
rates for women, very few men make use of their entitlement (7%
in Italy, 6% in Denmark, 5% in Germany, 3% in France, 2% in Poland).
Data published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation
and Development (OECD) in 2007 shows the ratio of fathers to mothers
using their entitlement to leave (based on the number of fathers
and mothers taking at least one day of parental leave). This indicator
confirms the wide variations across European countries: while in
Sweden the ratio was 77 fathers to every 100 mothers, the corresponding
figure in countries like Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany
and the Slovak Republic was under 10. EIGE, the European Institute
on Gender Equality, which used this data in its 2011 Review of the
Implementation of the Beijing Platform, explains the reasons for
these differences. Take-up rates are particularly low in countries
where parental leave is designed as a family entitlement rather
than an individual one and when it is not well paid.Note
5 Catch 22
19 Parental leave has been available to European fathers
for several decades. However, there is still a significant gender
imbalance in parental leave take-up. There are several reasons for
this, the most important being cultural reasons and a gender gap
in pay levels.
20 Cultural reasons are essentially linked to traditional gender
roles within the family. The situation that parental leave is meant
to counter represents an obstacle to its full enforcement. In other
words, the current social reality resists change.
21 There remains a risk of a kind of “catch 22” regarding parental
leave in many European countries. Parental leave is indeed often
offered as an equal opportunities measure. But if it is to promote
gender equality both in the household and the workplace, then it
has to be used equally by women and men. This requires gender equality
to have already been achieved, or to be more advanced than is the
case at present. If gender equality is not already advanced, then
parental leave may retard or even reverse progress towards its achievement.
6 Is there a best
system of parental leave?
22 Parental leave schemes vary widely across the different
European social security systems. The main variables are length,
the amount of payments, flexibility and nature of the entitlement.
These elements can be combined in a variety of different ways.
Nature of the entitlement
- Parental leave can be considered:
- a family entitlement, in which
case it can be divided between parents as they choose (this is the
case in many European countries including Austria, Denmark, France
- an individual entitlement (as in Belgium, Croatia, Greece,
Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and other countries);
- a mixed, partly family, partly individual entitlement
(as is the case of Iceland, Norway, Portugal and Sweden).
- Some systems in which parental leave has an individual
character allow for unused entitlement to be transferred to a partner.
Some others rule out this possibility: in this case, entitlements,
if not used, are lost. Norway was the first country to introduce,
in 1993, the father’s quota on the basis of the “use it or lose
it” principle. From the very start, it proved to be a success, as
can be seen by its high take-up rate.
- In general, it is important to note that legal entitlements
are not usually universally available: eligibility criteria often
exclude some groups of workers, such as the self-employed or workers
in more precarious and marginal forms of employment.
element can take different forms. Parents can, for instance, choose
to use all the period provided or just a part of it. They can take
the leave in one block or spread it over a longer period. Leave
can be full-time or part-time and therefore be combined with part-time
work. Some systems allow parents to choose longer periods of leave
with lower payment, or shorter periods with higher benefits. In
some cases, leave entitlements can even be transferred to carers
who are not the parents. The level of flexibility varies: Slovenia
for instance offers six different options to parents, Croatia offers
five, Germany, Norway and Sweden offer four.
- Most countries
provide some form of allowance to parents taking parental leave.
Payment policies vary considerably. Usually the allowance is either
set at a low rate for a longer period, or is more generous but limited
to less than six months. Schemes generally impose an overall ceiling on
benefit payments. In a few cases (notably Austria, the Czech Republic,
Estonia, France and Germany), all parents with young children, not
only those who take leave, receive a benefit.
Length of leave to take care of children and level of
countries can be divided into the following groups:
- nine months or more, at a two-thirds
or more replacement rate. Here, a period of parental leave is always
included. It applies to the five Nordic countries, to some countries
from central and eastern Europe (Croatia, Estonia, Hungary and Slovenia), and
- four to six months, but confined to maternity leave. Parental
leave is provided but without a high level of earnings-related provision.
This group includes several western European countries. Ireland
also comes here, but the effect of a ceiling on earnings-related
benefits needs to be taken into account;
- a maximum of four months of earnings-related postnatal
leave. This group includes Austria, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg,
the Netherlands, the Russian Federation and Switzerland.
Sweden introduced gender-neutral parental leave in
1974. It was a revolutionary, unique leave scheme. For the first
time, men had the right to take paid leave to take care of their
young children. In 1967, Hungary developed childcare leave, but
it was intended as a post-maternity leave for women only. In Sweden,
by contrast, it was a consequence of the cultural and political
climate of the country, where the objective of gender equality was
shared by a large majority of people. The idea of a mutual process
where women enter the traditional realms of men, and men the traditional
realms of women, has been the ideological foundation of Swedish
family and equal status policy for the last forty years.Note
24 Meanwhile, all Nordic countries have elaborated and implemented
comprehensive systems of quite generous earnings-related postnatal
leave, including a period of parental leave. They also regularly
assess and monitor their policies and practices, sometimes through
projects commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers. One recent
example is the Nordic project on childcare policies, which pays
special attention to fatherhood and the role of fathers as carers.
At present, Iceland seems to be the country in Europe providing
the most equality as regards entitlement to parental leave for mothers
and fathers. Following the innovative law in 2000, there was some
setback following the 2008 crisis, especially in terms of a reduction
in the ceiling of payments. But the Icelandic Parliament enacted
a new law (December 2012) providing five months of paid parental
leave for fathers, five months for mothers and two months of joint
entitlement for all parents. The time limit for use is also extended to
24 months. These changes will be enacted gradually between 2013
26 The Government of the United Kingdom announced in November
2012 that it planned to reform the country’s maternity leave scheme
and replace it by a flexible parental leave system. The total period
of 52 weeks currently granted to mothers could, under this proposal,
be shared by parents equally.
27 Although this reform goes in the right direction, it does
not seem to encourage fathers to take up the leave. According to
the plans, parents would be free to decide how to share the leave
period. This, as the previous experiences in other countries show,
generally leads to mothers continuing to take the bigger share.
28 French President François Hollande has also recently announced
that a draft law to reform the parental leave system would be presented
by May 2013. The reform would aim both to reduce the time that women spend
outside the labour market, which is potentially harmful for their
career prospects, and to encourage fathers to share responsibilities
in the upbringing of children. The reform would foresee in particular
a financial bonus when the second parent takes up parental leave.
29 In my country, Italy, a law passed in 2012 to reform the labour
market with a view to increasing economic growth set out, among
other things, rules on reconciliation of private and working life
and sharing household responsibilities between spouses. The law’s
implementing decree introduced allowances reserved for mothers to
cover the costs of babysitting or kindergarten for up to six months
after the maternity leave period, but also introduced both compulsory
and optional parental leave for fathers. As these periods are limited
to respectively one and two days, the measure clearly falls short
of reasonable minimum standards. Although the number of days is
merely symbolic, I consider it as a first step in the right direction,
provided that incremental reforms follow rapidly.
7 Information campaigns
30 When parental leave was introduced in Sweden, the
idea of making it compulsory for men was not part of the political
debate. As an entirely new kind of family benefit, and one that
did not reflect the traditional roles of men and women within the
family, the legislator preferred to design it as a free option rather
than an obligation.
31 However, for the reform to achieve its ultimate goal – improving
gender equality by means of shared responsibility for childcare
– it was necessary that a significant share of fathers avail themselves
of the new scheme. To this end, several campaigns were launched,
starting in 1976.
32 The authorities actively promoted the evolution of societal
attitudes about parenting, parental leave and gender roles through
television spots, posters, brochures, antenatal and postnatal education
classes and information meetings, both at national and local level.
In a first phase, in the late 1970s and the 1980s, campaigns were
based on images of fathers in non-traditional roles, taking care
of newborn babies, changing nappies, pushing swings at the playground,
and so on.
33 The first national campaign was based on Lennart “Hoa Hoa”
Dahlgren, a weight lifter, the aim being to show that even a man
with a very masculine image could be involved in the care of children.
The campaign encouraged men to share responsibilities within the
household, while underlining that this would not make them less
34 Nevertheless, showing men in non-traditional roles was sometimes
controversial. Later campaigns conveyed more subtle messages, focusing
for instance on gender differences and the complementarity between
parents. “Both are needed because we are different” was the headline
of a 1991 article in a magazine on parental leave launched by the
National Board of Health and Welfare, a public health authority.
35 Subsequently, in the 2002-2006 period, the focus shifted towards
the need to share responsibility. The campaigns took to emphasising
the similarities between women and men in terms of rights and capacities, rather
than their differences. The aim to establish gender equality became
more explicit. Benefits stemming from parental leave for parents,
not only for men, were underlined.
36 Campaigns aimed at promoting parental leave have been conducted
in numerous European countries, as research generally showed that
fathers and the general public were insufficiently aware of the
benefits available for parents.
37 A good example of more recent initiatives is a month-long
awareness campaign called “Dads at Work”, launched in the United
Kingdom by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)
in 2010. Research conducted by the BIS had shown that while fathers
valued flexible working and the possibility to take care of their
children, many of them were not aware of their rights or of how
to request special arrangements such as flexible working time, part-time,
working from home and parental leave.
The survey showed that 91% of fathers with children aged 16
and under believed it important that the father had the option to
take paid paternity leave. 62% thought a father’s relationship with
his child would suffer if he was not at home after the baby was
born. However, one in three did not know that paid paternity leave had
been made available by law, and about one in five (22%) was not
aware of the deadline (15 weeks before the baby is due) for requesting
The “Dads at Work” campaign was based on posters and information
leaflets distributed in doctors’ surgeries, hospital and antenatal
clinics and directing to a specific website for detailed information.
Online advertising, on websites that attract high numbers of visitors
who are fathers, was also part of the campaign. This campaign provided
clear information on fathers’ entitlements, including paternity
leave and parental leave.Note
8 Leading by example
40 Actions speak louder than words. It would obviously
be most helpful if well-known men, respected personalities or leading
politicians themselves set an example by taking parental leave and
showing that it is possible to reconcile, for example, political
responsibilities and fathering.
41 In 1998, the Finnish Prime Minister, Paavo Lipponen, set an
important precedent by taking parental leave while in office: at
the time, newspaper articles all over the world reported the news
as something original if not extravagant. Since then, views on this
subject have evolved. A few years ago, some opinion leaders frowned
at prominent politicians who did not take time off to stay with
their newborn babies; this was the case in France and the United
42 In the Nordic countries, examples of ministers and other politicians
holding high-level posts taking paternity or parental leave are
becoming more frequent. In 2011, two Ministers of the Norwegian
Government, Mr Knut Storberget (justice) and Mr Audun Lysbakken
(family affairs) took parental leave following the birth of their
respective children. Asked to comment about it, Prime Minister Jens
Stoltenberg said: “I miss
them, … But it can't be that men are more indispensable to the workplace
– or to the government – than women.”
9 Incentives for
fathers to take parental leave
43 As women’s average salaries are lower than men’s,
mothers tend to apply for parental leave more than fathers. If the
period of parental leave is unpaid or the allowance is not proportional
to the wages, take-up by fathers tends to represent a bigger loss
of income for the household. To fully counter this situation, it
would be necessary to eradicate the gender pay-gap and/or to provide
substantial incentives for men to take parental leave.
44 Gender-neutral parental leave schemes which implicitly include
fathers do not appear to promote greater father involvement. Fathers
appear to need stronger incentives, and reassurances, to use their
parental leave entitlement. Lower take-up rates by fathers in less
secure and poorly regulated occupations indicate the significance
of financial loss as a disincentive. Moreover, a fair amount of
flexibility is beneficial for a higher take-up of parental leave
45 It is relevant to follow developments in countries outside
Europe, especially those with a tradition and record of monitoring
and evaluation of their policies, in particular as regards parental
leave. Australia, for example, introduced in January 2013 its “Dad
and Partner Pay” regulation, following hearings and studies in previous
years. A recent study concludes that uptake of parental leave by
fathers will increase if the government provides well-compensated,
flexible, parent-specific and publicly promoted parental leave.
46 The workplace culture remains of substantial importance for
the take-up of parental leave, especially for fathers. Employers
play a critical role in the way they design and implement working
time arrangements in their companies and organisations. Comparative
research in European companies shows that the existence of statutory
entitlements indeed tends to act as a major driving force for initiating
parental leave and other extended care leave options at establishment
level. Companies deploy a range of strategies to manage the take-up
of parental leave, reflecting to some extent the national labour
market conditions. European countries with a leave system that provides
a high earnings-replacement rate also have the highest proportion
of companies with (male) employees taking parental leave.
47 Research on knowledge workers in two Norwegian companies revealed
that such post-industrial work is both seductive and demanding.
Such companies offer new forms of work organisation and flexibility,
but often in the interests of productivity, rather than of fathering.
48 Another way of increasing the proportion of fathers taking
up parental leave is the introduction of compulsory elements into
the schemes. As already mentioned, several countries, especially
in the Nordic region, have chosen this option. In Denmark and Norway,
for instance, one month of the extended period of leave is a “use
it or lose it” option for fathers. They can choose to take it or
not, but they cannot transmit the benefit to the mother of the child.
Norway, Sweden and Iceland have reserved a period for fathers.Note
Iceland radically reformed its parental
leave system in 2000. The period has been extended to nine months,
one third of which has to be used by the mother, one third by the
father and the last third is to be shared between the parents as
they wish. The father’s share can therefore not be less than one
third of the total period.Note
With the reform of 2012, Iceland went
further in the same direction (see paragraph 25).
50 Another form of incentive for fathers is different forms of
bonus, such as additional leave days (this is the case in seven
countries). In Finland, fathers can take 24 bonus days if they take
the last two weeks of parental leave.
51 Sweden has introduced a “gender equality bonus”, that is an
economic incentive for families to divide parental leave more equally.
The parent using most parental leave days gets a tax deduction during
the time the other parent uses parental leave. The more equally
the parents share the parental leave, the more bonus they receive
(up to a maximum of approximately €1 210 per child).
52 In Germany, the length of benefit payment is extended to 14
months for fathers who take at least two months of leave. While
this solution of adding two months of leave to the standard leave
period entailed considerable higher costs than a more punitive “use
it or lose it” option, it was of strategic importance because it
enabled the German Government to overcome political resistance to
a measure seen as crucial for any successful attempt to raise the
paternal take-up of leave.
53 In Portugal, a bonus is offered to families where the father
shares part of the maternity leave. Proposals to emphasise the gender
sharing of leave were prepared through public debate and hearings,
to commission a study on the expectations of fathers, and negotiation
with the social partners. Portugal is also the only country making
it obligatory for fathers to take two weeks of leave.
54 As President Obama said: “I
came to understand the importance of fatherhood through its absence
– both in my life and in the lives of others. I came to understand
that the hole a man leaves when he abandons his responsibility to
his children is one that no government can fill. We can do everything
possible to provide good jobs and good schools and safe streets
for our kids, but it will never be enough to fully make up the difference.”
55 Parental leave is potentially an excellent way to overcome
rigid gender roles and promote gender equality, both in family and
professional life. It is also a very good way to respond to the
need of many men to play a hands-on role in bringing up their children.
56 For these goals to be achieved, parental leave schemes need
to be correctly designed and effectively enforced. The elements
of length, financial support and flexibility should be combined
in such a way as to maximise the impact on gender equality.
57 The Nordic countries have been pioneers of parental leave
and still lead the way. They were the first to introduce it, to
promote it and to assess its implementation. Although this does
not mean that the Scandinavian model can be exported as such to
other Council of Europe member States, the experience of these countries helps
us identify some successful features.
58 The counterparts I met during the fact-finding visit to Sweden
made it clear that the parental leave system is part of the country’s
social and cultural landscape and has had a strong impact on people’s
mindsets. While perfect gender equality has not yet been achieved
in the world of work and in family life, childbearing and household
responsibilities are increasingly shared between partners and men
bear a considerable part.
59 Another element that emerged from our meetings is the fact
that both the Swedish authorities and the Swedish people are aware
of the importance of parental leave and this system is unlikely
to be questioned or reduced. This is an indication even for countries
undergoing a spending review process: even though parental leave
can be costly, its positive effects in terms of participation of
women in economic life and in gender balanced economic growth make
My main recommendations are:
as regards the design of parental leave schemes:
- Council of Europe member States
which have not already done so should introduce gender neutral parental
leave schemes aimed at allowing and encouraging parents to share responsibilities
in the upbringing of children;
- reserving a share of the leave for each parent, which
cannot be transferred to the other parent and is lost if it is not
used, increases the chances of fathers taking up parental leave,
as do bonus schemes encouraging both parents to take up parental
- parental leave schemes should include a fair amount of
flexibility, including the possibility to take it in one block or
to break it up or to combine it with full-time or part-time work;
- parental leave should be available to all workers irrespective
of their type of contract (including those on fixed-term, part-time
and temporary work contracts);
- two key policies need to be included in discussing policy
frameworks to support employed parents with young children: parental
leave and early childhood education and care (ECEC). Particular
attention should be given to whether they are co-ordinated, namely
that an entitlement to parental leave leads immediately into, or
coincides with, an entitlement to an ECEC service;
- parents should have the right to work part-time or flexible
hours because of their child’s age or a disability. Employers should
consider such requests and refuse them only if there is a clear business
case for doing so;
- parental leave is not only a gender equality and employment
issue. The interests of the child are equally important and should
be taken into account when drafting any leave policy;
- viewed from a longer-term perspective, policy makers should
consider replacing the various types of leave (maternity, paternity,
parental, childcare leave) with a single parental leave, with equal
quota for mothers and fathers. Although it is understood that maternity
leave remains justified on health and welfare grounds, both for
mothers and for infants, it also should not damage women’s economic
and social opportunities. In this respect, the model developed in Iceland
looks interesting with its division of a single postnatal period
shared between mother, father and family use;
as regards measures to promote the take-up of parental
- Council of Europe member
States should organise information and awareness-raising campaigns.
Specific messages should be conveyed to men, both to inform them
of available parental leave schemes and to present their positive
- social partners – employers and trade unions alike – have
an important influence on attitudes towards and practices regarding
parental leave across Europe. They should therefore be encouraged
to tackle obstacles and barriers in order to create a workplace
culture that facilitates the take-up of parental leave, especially
among male workers.