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Where are the fathers?

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In most OECD countries, parents are entitled to paid parental leave when they choose to temporarily leave work to care for a young child. However, the majority of parental leave is typically taken by mothers, leading to a widening gender gap in labor force participation and earnings following childbirth. In an effort to encourage fathers to take an active role in parenting, the European Union implemented a policy in 2019 that requires member countries to provide nontransferable periods of parental leave exclusively designated for fathers.

By earmarking specific periods of parental leave for fathers, the length of the mother's leave is no longer reduced when the father takes time off. This approach has the potential to mitigate any perceived stigma associated with fathers taking parental leave. Evaluating the impact of earmarking on fathers' uptake of parental leave is therefore crucial in understanding the reasons behind low participation rates among fathers in certain countries, particularly where no dedicated leave periods are available to them.

To investigate these questions, we conducted an analysis of the consequences of a 2015 reform in France that introduced a specific allocation of up to 12 months of paid leave exclusively for fathers, while simultaneously reducing the maximum paid leave available to mothers by the same number of months. Despite the low pre-reform participation rate of fathers (approximately 2.4%) and the relatively modest level of benefits, which remained unchanged and corresponded to a third of the minimum wage, the government anticipated a significant increase in the percentage of fathers taking parental leave.

By examining administrative data and comparing parents of children born before and after the reform, we found that the number of fathers taking parental leave after the reform was surprisingly low. In response to a 25 percentages point decline in mothers' participation rate resulting from the reduction in parental leave, fathers' participation increased by less than 1 percentage point. However, the reform did have a clear impact on mothers' labor earnings, leading to a reduction in the gender gap in earnings and labor force participation following childbirth. We also observed a positive, though imprecise, effect on fathers' earnings, indicating that the reduction in mothers' parental leave may have encouraged some fathers to work more instead of taking leave.

Overall, our findings suggest that in the context of relatively low benefit levels, and despite the availability of slightly better compensated part-time parental leave, the provision of specifically earmarked months for fathers did not significantly increase their participation rates. While the limited success of the reform in increasing fathers' participation can be primarily attributed to the low benefit levels, our empirical evidence also indicates the influence of stigma. We discovered that most fathers working part-time chose not to take parental leave, even though doing so would have resulted in a monthly income increase of €200. Additionally, fathers with higher incomes, who may be less constrained by traditional gender norms, and those residing in regions with more favorable attitudes towards fathers taking leave, were more likely to take advantage of the leave time offered by the reform.


© Helene Perivier and Gregory Verdugo

Hélène Périvier is an economist at Sciences Po Economics Research Center, Paris (OFCE)

Gregory Verdugo is Professor at Universite Paris Saclay, Evry and an IZA Research Fellow
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Related IZA World of Labor content: by Astrid Kunze by Jose Ignacio Gimenez-Nadal and Jose Alberto Molina by Astrid Kunze with Nina Smith and Daniel S. Hamermesh

Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash