Wednesday 20 November 2019

Sarah Carey: Will Irish daddies want paternity leave?

Sarah Carey

Equality Minister Aodhan O Riordain is proposing that the upcoming Family Leave Bill will provide two weeks paid paternity leave.

Two weeks isn’t bad at all, even if it is just the social welfare payment of a couple of hundred of euro per week.

 In fact, everything the Minister says about how we should be having an ongoing conversation about parenting is completely right.

 Alas, I still find myself in the cynical position of saying: “Good luck with that”.  There’s a corporate cliché trotted out that goes “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.  I predict that corporate culture will chew up both the legislation and the money, and spit it out like the soggy cereal it is. O’Riordain was immediately tackled on the proposed cost, but he needn’t worry about that. The lads won’t take up the leave. How do I know this? Because I’ve seen it all before.

I worked for a very progressive company years ago that offered full pay for a few weeks paternity leave. There was no shortage of babies but I can’t recall any of the men taking it up. They got mother home and settled and were back in the office straight away delighted with themselves, accepting congratulations, like they’d just given birth or something.

Men know damn well that modern company culture requires us to pretend that the glory and privilege of working is what matters most to us. Rearing children is something best done in one’s spare time, preferably by women, and ideally poorer women paid a pittance so it doesn’t cost middle class women too much.

It’s not the demeaning kind of labour that Important Men in Important Jobs should be doing. If work is the means by which status is allocated in society, men will not give up that status for full pay never mind the social welfare payment. And that was during the boom when there were plenty of jobs. These days with work scarce it’s worse than ever. If you don’t show “passion” for your job – whatever it is – there are plenty of people who will. No doubt young single people who’ll take less pay while they’re at it too.

In case you think this is argument by anecdote, I shall invoke none other than Sweden, the Nirvana of the progressive society. People always quote Sweden when they’re trying to argue that everything can be better, but I’ve started checking the reality and it’s amazing what comes up.

Sweden introduced paternity leave –  with nearly 80pc pay -  almost 40 years ago. For years the take-up rate was abysmal – as low as 0.5pc. Over those 40 years the government has tried everything to increase the uptake. At one stage they had a “Use it or lose it” policy.

At first, parents could choose who would take the leave but of course mothers “chose” it all the time. When the leave was divided between mothers and fathers on an individual basis, if fathers didn’t take up their part of the entitlement it was lost completely. That helped a bit, but not much.

Eventually, they simply had to make the first 60 days of parental leave mandatory for both mother and father. Then they tried the carrot. If the Dad took one month’s extra leave, then the couple could add an extra month onto their total, which either could take. This had some impact and it became known as the “Daddy Month”. The take up rate was still poor though, so they had another go. If the Dad took two months leave, then the parents were entitled to an extra two months paid leave.

The government is bending over backwards and even today you know what the take up rate on the extra time is? 25pc. Almost full pay; an extra two months for the mother and still only a quarter take up the extended leave. However other countries have realised the bribery is better than nothing and Germany followed suit. If the father took his “Daddy Month” then the couple got the extra month. This increased take-up in Germany from 3pc to 20pc.

And you know what the saddest thing of all is? The most progressive company in that most progressive countries of Sweden is Volvo. They began to force men to take the leave when they realised that minding small children made them better managers. As any mother will tell you, the improvisation, patience, ingenuity and sheer physical labour required to take care of little children is the best reality check and management training course ever.

Volvo’s Chairman said once that if he had to pick two equally qualified men for a job, he’d pick the one who had taken his paternity leave. I like to think that’s not just because his management skills had been improved, but also because it shows he has a more mature and rounded character. Anyone who chooses to spend time at the office when they could be at home with their kids has their priorities wrong. I think people who have the wrong idea about life are a danger to their companies, to society and to the economy. I submit the entire financial crisis as Exhibit A.

Anyway, the point is, it took 40 years of equality policies, almost full pay, and a mix of mandatory and incentive deals to get just one quarter of Swedish fathers to take their leave. O Riordain is right to start somewhere, but it’s utterly depressing to know how little impact his proposal will have.

*This article has been updated with a more accurate explanation of paternity leave in Sweden

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