Minister Regina Doherty has come under fire for suggesting that money is not the reason for the low take-up of paternity leave among fathers.
Her remarks have been branded as a "gross insult" to men amid arguments that the decision comes down to "pure hard cash" and the need to pay mortgages and crèche fees.
It comes as the Government announced plans for extended parental leave, including another two weeks for fathers.
Figures show that around 60pc of men already don't avail of existing paternity leave and Social Protection Minister Ms Doherty made some pointed remarks about men not taking up the options. She claimed there's "a narrative that the value of money associated with the scheme isn't enough for men to take off work". Ms Doherty added: "It doesn't seem to have stopped women from taking maternity leave for time immemorial."
Under the plans for extended parental leave the State will pay €245 a week, which may be voluntarily topped up by private companies if their employee is on a higher salary.
It will be 'use it or lose it' for parents and won't be transferable from fathers to mothers.
Ms Doherty said this will "help incentivise fathers to take more time off work to care for their children than has been the case up to now".
Fianna Fáil's social protection spokesman Willie O'Dea accused Ms Doherty of suggesting that men have no interest in looking after their children in their formative years and said this is a "gross insult".
"In my experience the vast majority of cases where people don't take paternity leave it's because they can't afford it," Mr O'Dea said.
He said a man taking home €600 or €700 a week is "put to the pin of his collar" trying to pay a mortgage and that €245 per week is a disincentive to take paternity leave. He also said the situation is akin to a postcode lottery as some employers will pay a top-up and others won't.
Meanwhile, Richard Grogan, a specialist employment law solicitor, claimed that the proposals for two weeks' additional parental leave for fathers will be "as abysmal a failure as the paternity leave scheme".
He told the Irish Independent that it is "virtually impossible" for fathers to take the existing leave because they have mortgages or rent as well as crèche fees to pay. He said the decision comes down to "pure hard cash". He said that USC-paying parents should get 60pc of their net salary rather than a "paltry €245". He also criticised the minister for deciding to "play this card of men don't want to be involved in the rearing of children" and said she should provide research to back this up. Mr Grogan said she should make paternity leave compulsory if this is what she believes.
Last night, Ms Doherty responded to the criticism, saying: "I've never claimed that new fathers don't want to spend time with their children - most do - but I have said that we need to have a conversation in this country around gender roles." She said there's still a perception "in much public discussion that caring is a 'woman's thing' and that taking time off 'real work' is still a novelty for fathers".
She argued that the remarks by Mr O'Dea and Mr Grogan "underline the resistance to any cultural change around who cares and who works and is regrettable". She said that when the minimum wage was introduced it was said to be unaffordable for business but now it's accepted that it's a benchmark for fair play in the workplace. Ms Doherty added: "Similarly, over time, I hope initiatives like parental leave can change mindsets and, more importantly, actions - making it acceptable and possible for both parents to become actively involved in caring for their babies."