How to bridge the parental leave divide

When Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s 31-year-old chief executive officer, told the world he was taking a two-month parental leave following the birth of his daughter last year, it signalled a turning point in the conversation about the link between strong families and business success.

The move also confirmed that what’s good for the boss is also good for the rest of the workforce, as Facebook extended its paid parental leave to four months for all full-time employees, regardless of gender.

And many other employers have seen the light: Netflix is allowing all employees to take unlimited paid leave during the first year after a child’s birth or adoption, while Microsoft has extended its paid parental leave to 12 weeks for all parents, compared to its previous eight weeks for new mothers and four weeks for new parents.

Read: Netflix offers U.S. workers paid maternity, paternity leave

Read: Microsoft expands parental leave, improves 401(k) plan

But longer leave isn’t necessarily enough. A 2014 report from the Families and Work Institute showed employer practices such as flexibility and parenting support could also make a difference to both workplace performance and family well-being. Many companies leading the way with extra leave also provide transitional support in the run-up to the leave and when employees return to work as well as support groups to facilitate discussions around any issues or challenges that could arise.

Generational shift

It’s no surprise the most forward-thinking companies also have younger generations of employees.

“When dads today become new dads, they think nothing of coparenting and partnerships in household management,” says Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of the Vanier Institute of the Family.

“As a result, it has changed the dynamic of how people are using maternity and parental leave. When parental leave was first introduced, the expectation was that moms would take their maternity leave and then [most] of the parental leave, and then the dads would take whatever was left over. The reality is that dads are taking their share of the parental leave concurrent with mom during her maternity leave.”

A distinct divide in paternity leave across Canada

  • The average duration of parental benefits was 31.7 weeks for women and 16.1 weeks for men (among biological parents) in 2013-14. The average duration among adoptive parents was 29.5 weeks for women and 19 weeks for men.
  • Since Quebec introduced its parental insurance plan in 2006, the proportion of fathers in that province who took or intended to take leave has tripled to 78.3% in 2014 from 27.8% in 2005.
  • Outside of Quebec, only 9.4% of recent fathers claimed or intended to claim parental leave in 2014, compared with 12.2% in 2013.

Sources: Employment Insurance coverage survey 2014; EI monitoring and assessment report

Read: Will 18-month parental leave become reality?

Despite coverage through Employment Insurance, generous benefits from many employers and anecdotal evidence of a shift in traditional mindsets, Statistics Canada’s 2014 employment insurance coverage survey shows the share of working fathers claiming parental leave across Canada actually dropped to 27.1% in 2014 from 30.9% in 2013.

Also, a historical stigma around fathers taking leave remains thanks to peer pressure, fear of not seeming committed to the company, an unsupportive workplace culture and the need to maintain family income.

“It is complicated because there have been such changes in the expectations of men in terms of their family role,” says Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute.

“Previously, men’s roles were about money. Childcare was a nice thing to do, though it wasn’t considered a part of being a good dad. That has changed.

Read: Flex work and fatherhood: A chance to bond with baby

“I think one of the main parts of the problem is that the male gender role really lacked any clear concept of what you do as a father. Instead, people are saying he has a purpose, from taking care of the child to bonding with the child to taking care of his partner. Children are a group project rather than this rigid division of labour. That has really changed the conversation.”

The law around parental leave

Parental leave includes three major components: Employment Insurance benefits; job protection as found in the applicable employment standards legislation; and any employer-provided benefits and support before, during and after leave.

Parental leave legislation around the world

A Canadian parent in any jurisdiction can take up to 52 weeks of leave (35 weeks of parental and 17 weeks of maternity leave), which reflects the benefits that are available under Employment Insurance during the same period. The new Liberal government plans to extend the entire package per family to 18 months but it has yet to set an implementation date.

An employee in the United States has 12 weeks of job-guaranteed parental leave, but it’s up to the employer to determine whether it’s a paid or unpaid period. The Family and Medical Leave Act doesn’t cover all workers, however, and the closest offering to Canada’s system is state programs, says the Families and Work Institute’s Kenneth Matos.

New legislation introduced in Britain in 2015 allows mothers, fathers and adoptive parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave, 37 weeks of which is paid, in their child’s first year.

Starting in 2016, fathers in Sweden must take a third month of paid parental leave. The country already allowed parents to split up to 16 months of paid leave, but fathers previously had to take off a minimum of two of them.

Parental leave is available to either parent in every jurisdiction in Canada. For fathers, Quebec refers to paternity leave, while New Brunswick refers to it as childcare leave.

In total, a couple can take up to 52 weeks of leave at 55% of salary (75% in Quebec). The coverage includes 35 weeks of parental leave, which both parents can split, and 17 weeks of maternity leave (15 weeks of paid benefits plus a two-week waiting period for Employment Insurance benefits).

Read: Are traditional benefits good enough?

Provincial employment standards legislation sets out the minimum standards employers must meet. “For the most part, employees would be entitled to at least those minimum standards,” says Deborah Cushing, a partner at law firm Lawson Lundell LLP in Vancouver.

Leading employers often top up Employment Insurance benefits, which makes it more attractive for one parent to take leave over the other. “Often, there is a decision within a family unit about which parent would take the leave,” says Cushing.

“If I was entitled to 17 weeks of supplemental benefits and my partner was entitled to 10 weeks, we might split it up that way. It’s not my experience that employers discourage it but more that it is not the norm that fathers take leave compared to mothers.”

Healing the stigma

Despite legislative requirements across the country, any additional benefits or support from employers will vary by company and industry.

In most cases, says Spinks, employers still find it surprising when working fathers want to exercise their rights around parental leave. “But we are seeing it in professional services, in frontline services and in male-dominated industries,” she notes. “It has crossed over from a generational perspective.”

Other companies are joining Facebook, Netflix and Microsoft in bringing in change. The Bank of Montreal, for instance, provides top-up support during the entire period of maternity and parental leave for its employees, according to Spinks.

Read: Firms urged to accommodate workers engaged in family care

“At first, companies would just top up the two weeks’ waiting period, then it was just the maternity period and then many extended it to six months,” she says. “Now it is the full period. This is the new wave.”

Some employers provide transitional support groups and information sessions while others let parents return to work on a part-time basis or allow flexible working arrangements.

Despite those options, a stigma persists. “Employers that think about it proactively and responsibly will include men in their communications and will check their language,” says Spinks.

“Progressive employers are already there. The second tier is almost there. There will still be some that will deal with this on a one-off basis, but they will learn. The fears and anxieties that employers presented when it first became a one-year package is that it would be hard to replace people and to bring them back. Both of those myths or concerns have been completely wiped with the experience.”

Read: Employers must accommodate childcare requests

Ultimately, the bigger shift in the conversation will come down to time and experience. A study conducted in Norway, where paid paternity leave is the law, found that when a male coworker takes leave, the next male coworker to have a child at his workplace was 11% more likely to do so as well. The effect was even stronger if the coworker taking leave was a male manager.

While the study demonstrates a shift in employee thinking, it has to rise to the top. “As more dads take leave, more employers are pausing to say, ‘Instead of just reacting on a one-off basis, maybe we should think about this more proactively,’” says Spinks.

“We should think less [about] gender-specific benefits and more [about] family-specific benefits. We should be more inclusive of men in our conversations about leave and compensation. Regardless of whether employers get on board or not, the next wave of new dads is going to take them there. It’s better to be proactive than to try to fight it.”

Read: Caregiving’s impact on the workplace

Deloitte’s programs for dads

Among the companies getting the message about the need to support new fathers is professional services firm Deloitte, which offers two optional paternity benefits.

The first is three weeks of paid time off at 100% of salary; the second, for those taking advantage of a longer leave under provincial legislation, is a six-week top-up of their Employment Insurance benefits, also at 100% of salary.

About 200 to 300 fathers at the firm take advantage of those options and parental leave each year. Scott Finkel, a manager in the assurance and advisory group at Deloitte, is one of them. During his six years with the company, he’s had two children. “The firm has been very encouraging, helpful and understanding of what it takes to be a parent, and especially a new parent,” he says.

“I was encouraged to take that time and not look back at all.” While both paternity benefits options have been available at least since the early 2000s with an expansion in 2007 and 2009, employees have more recently been helping to build a network called Deloitte Dads. Sitting alongside other employee networks, it allows working fathers to support and share experiences with others facing similar issues or challenges.

In 2016, the Deloitte Dads network is planning to host a round-table discussion with fathers at various levels and create a survival guide for new dads that all employees will be able to access. Jeff Bonnell, national talent director at Deloitte, says those types of benefits reflect a trend towards two very important themes: flexibility and inclusion. “We don’t have to measure and audit everything, despite our firm purpose, to know we’re seeing the changes,” he says.

“It is flexibility and inclusion, recognizing that new dads are going to be new dads and life happens. We need to provide ways to support people when they need the time the most and they need the money the most. The value is so clear. Our people appreciate it, and that makes them more highly engaged in the company and our business, and that is good for our clients.”

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Jennifer Paterson is managing editor of Benefits Canada.