Why aren’t more fathers taking paternity leave?

Why aren’t more fathers taking paternity leave?

Figures show that less than one in four new fathers are availing of the €235 a week benefit

 

David Collins: “My Dad had to go back to work the next day. Things have changed so much for the better.”

David Collins: “My Dad had to go back to work the next day. Things have changed so much for the better.”

 

Introduced last September, paternity leave marked a step change in how fathers are treated by the State – and their employers. But latest figures show that just one in every four new fathers is applying for the benefit, a much lower uptake than the three out of five expected to avail of the scheme when it was first announced.

Father figures

Figures from the Department of Social Protection show that , between last September and January 11th, 5,545 paternity benefit applications were awarded.

In 2015, there were about 65,000 births: extrapolating from this, you would expect that there had been about 24,000 births during this period. With just over 5,500 applications, the indications are that only about 23 per cent of fathers are applying for the benefit.

On a full-year basis, the department expects some 20,000 claims but this is still substantially less than the 30,000-40,000 fathers it initially expected to avail of the benefit. The department has set aside some €18 million to cover the cost of the scheme this year but, if the current trend continues, full-year applications in the region of 15,500 will only cost about €7 million (the payment is €230 a week, rising to €235 from March 1st).

Longford is the county with the fewest applicants. Just 46 Longford men have benefited from the payment to date. On a per capita basis, fathers in Laois are least likely to avail of the benefit. The 71 applicants in the county comprise just 0.09 per cent of its population.

Take-up figures are also low in Kerry, Roscommon, and Clare. Fathers in more urban areas such as Dublin, Cork and Kilkenny appear more likely to take the benefit, at least in the early days of the scheme.

David Joyce, an equality officer with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, says the low take-up is “disappointing”.

“If the take-up is low, it’s probably more self-censorship by some men, who might say, ‘if I take this am I sending out a signal that my work isn’t important?’.”

Joyce also questions the impact a culture of long working hours can have on decisions such as these. “It is still an issue; there really needs to be a sea change in terms of attitude and workplace culture that values parenting and accommodates it in a real way,” he says.

Facebook role model

Fiona Mullan, director of human resources for Facebook EMEA, says the low take-up may be due more to the novelty of the concept.

“I think with any social change it takes a while, particularly as it relates to the workplace,” she says.

Facebook doesn’t have such an issue itself. It has its very own champion for paternity leave in the form of chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who very publicly took two months leave when his daughter, Max, was born in 2015. After all, nothing sends out a message quite as succinctly as someone in a senior position doing something – and not just talking about it.

His approach has filtered through the organisation and, since January 2016, full-time employees at Facebook’s Dublin office who become parents but aren’t entitled to maternity leave are offered four months of “paid baby leave”. Prior to this, parents not eligible for maternity leave could take four weeks of paid leave.

“We support shared parenting responsibilities,” says Mullan. “There is an expectation that everyone will take it; but they can take it in different ways.”

Some people take the four months in a block, she says, while others will spread it around the year.

“They work with their own managers to come up with a solution that’s best for them and for the business,” she says. Of course not every company has the capacity to offer such an incentive.

“We’ve had the luxury of our size and business position that we can make the investment at this point. It’s not the same for every company.”

Paternity top-ups

Another factor in the number of people availing of leave is whether or not the benefit is topped up by employers. The State pays paternity benefit at a rate of €230 a week. This is set to increase from the second week of March to €235 a week, the same as the rate of pay for statutory maternity leave. As with maternity leave, applicants need the requisite PRSI stamps to qualify.

However, for many families, this simply isn’t enough.

OECD research suggests that fathers’ use of parental leave is highest when leave is not just paid but well paid – half or more of normal earnings. At just 35 per cent of average industrial earnings, Ireland’s new paternity benefit scheme is not there yet, and this may be prohibiting take-up.

“You’re basically taking a pay cut for two weeks,” says Joyce.

The level of the payment may preclude fathers from taking the time off if their family depends on their salary, or if the mother is not getting her maternity benefit topped up and is also relying on €235 a week. In such cases, the father may be reluctant to take this extra time.

But many companies – among them Facebook and Big Four accountancy firm KPMG – do top-up employees’ paternity benefit in much the same way as they top-up maternity benefit.

Legally, a company might find it difficult to top-up mothers’ pay and not fathers’. “They couldn’t discriminate,” says Joyce.

Level playing field

Early take-up figures may not be as robust as some might have hoped but the introduction of paternity leave did mark a step-change in terms of social policy in Ireland.

 

“It was the first time ever that there was a statutory right for men to be involved in caring responsibility. Up to then, the whole leave system had been structured around women,” notes Joyce.

And despite current low levels of take-up, there’s no reason why numbers won’t increase in the future.

Also, as Mullan notes, men returning from paternity leave – particularly perhaps from four months’ leave with Facebook – now have a “true appreciation” of what it’s like for women to come back from maternity leave. And that’s got to be a good thing for women hoping to continue their careers after starting a family.

How does it work again?

Fathers considering opting for the benefit should note that it’s available to fathers in both heterosexual and same-sex couples. The two-week leave can be taken at any point within 28 weeks of the birth or adoption of a child, and the two weeks must be taken together.

Fathers must give four weeks’ notice – in writing – to their employer indicating their intention to take the leave. However, this notice may not apply in the event of a premature birth. As with maternity leave, paternity leave should not affect any employment rights.

The move is particularly welcome for self-employed men, who are also entitled to the benefit, but they must submit an application to the Department of Social Protection 12 weeks before the leave. Applications for paternity benefit can be made online or by post using the application form PB1.

THE FATHERS TAKING PATERNITY LEAVE   Daniel Jimenez Winkleman

He may have been the only father in the pool, but it didn’t stop Daniel Jimenez Winkleman making the most of his “paid baby leave” when he took three and a half months off with his new baby Liam last year.

“Baby massage, baby swimming, you name it, I did it!” he recalls.

Unlike many fathers, Jimenez Winkleman, a Spanish/German – and now a bit Irish too – who is a manager in client solutions at Facebook’s Dublin-based team, was able to spend so much time with his new baby thanks to the social media giant’s policy of offering four months’ paid leave to new parents.

“My wife and I thought it would make more sense when Liam was a little bit older as, for the father, there would be a greater level of interaction,” he says, of his decision to take the leave when his baby was three months old. “I enjoyed every second of it. I really had the opportunity to switch off.”

At the time, Jimenez Winkleman was managing a team of seven to 10 people, and, while he says he didn’t feel “guilty” at the thought of leaving them for such a long time, he was conscientious in planning well ahead, to minimise disruption to the business and allow other members of the team to step up to a new challenge in his absence.

“Try to connect your own opportunity to leave with opportunity for other people to step up as well,” he says.

Plenty of planning meant he could depart “relaxed” – and ready for the new challenge of feeding the baby and changing nappies.

While he wasn’t checking his emails every day, Jimenez Winkleman did keep in touch with the office, coming in for lunch with his manager once a month or so. Upon his return, he “slotted in relatively easily”.

“The period of time was long enough to switch off, but not so long that I would have felt alienated coming back. It was just the right amount of time,” he recalls.

 

And, while the experience allowed him to build a strong bond with his new baby, and help his wife at such a busy time, he also something else from the experience.

“I was way more aware of the challenges that women might face after coming back from maternity leave,” he says.

David Collins

The arrival of your first baby is a time of extremes; joy, pride . . . and a little bit of terror thrown in. It’s also a little bit trickier when neither of you are from the city you’re living in, and so can’t rely on the help of easy accessible relatives.

For Galway-born, Dublin-based David Collins, a director in KPMG’s management consulting group, thoughts such as these got him saving his holidays last year, so he would be able to spend the time with his wife when his baby arrived.

The arrival of the new paternity benefit regime in September however, plus the professional services group’s decision to top-up the payment for the full two weeks, meant Collins could keep his holidays, while also taking some time out.

“It was a very important part of it [the decision to take the leave],” he recalls. “It was a major bonus that KPMG decided to top it up.”

Baby James was born on November 27th, which meant Collins was able to take his two weeks’ leave, and then take his Christmas holidays.

Would he have taken so long if he hadn’t been entitled to paternity leave?

“Looking back, honestly I don’t know how we’d have done it. The first two weeks for a new parent are a bit of a blur,” says Collins, adding that “everyone was very supportive” at work of his decision to take the leave.

His being there at the start also means that the couple see caring for James as more of a shared responsibility.

“The first time you’re handed a baby to put clothes on, change their nappy . . . it’s a very nerve-wracking time. At least I had the time to get my confidence up as well as being there to understand the day-to-day minding of a baby,” he says. “My Dad had to go back to work the next day. Things have changed so much for the better.”

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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