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Why supporting paternity leave makes smart business sense

The Government needs to legislate for employers to provide a payment top-up to make the additional two weeks paternity leave an option for families, writes Christopher Paye.

Christopher Paye

THIS WEEK SAW Minister Paschal Donohue TD deliver the Government’s Budget 2019, announcing a two-week extension to current paid parental leave allowances.
The development is welcome news for new parents up and down the country juggling the excitement and responsibilities of a new-born with the demands of the modern workplace.

However, the success or failure of this initiative will ultimately be dictated by employers and their willingness to back the measure.

Many smart employers already recognise the value of looking after expectant parents. They see it as an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to their employees and their desire to keep them within the organisation in the long term. For these companies, this two-week extension is the Government playing catch-up.

For employers who don’t fall into this camp, this is the Government’s way of saying it is time to fall into line and start providing meaningful parental leave for their employees. Or to be more specific, it is time to unpick the stigma of men taking their full allocation of paternity leave.

A new phenomenon

Paternity leave is still a very new phenomenon in Ireland. The current two-week allowance first came into effect in September 2016. 

A modest 27,000 fathers availed of the time off in the first 12 months, despite there being in excess of 62,000 new births in Ireland during this time. This represents less than 70% of the total number of mothers who availed of maternity leave during the same period.

Last year, Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty TD expressed her concern at the low uptake of paternity leave:

I think there is something in the culture in our society that expects women to stay at home; that is not the case anymore. There are men who want to stay at home and bond with their families.

So why didn’t more dads jump at the opportunity to spend more time with their newborns?

While paternity leave is now a standard employment benefit, many employers do not offer an additional top-up on the paternity benefit payment of €235 per week. So, if a dad wants to take his full allocation of paternity leave, this means his family is likely to take a pay cut at a time of additional cost.

Perhaps Ireland could take some guidance from Sweden, which is known for offering one of the most generous parental leave packages in the world. Parents of both sexes are entitled to 480 days (16 months) of paid parental leave at about 80% of their salary with one clause: the leave must be shared between both parents.

If Government wants to see a successful uptake in the extended parental leave, then they will need to consider legislating for employers to provide a payment top-up to make the additional two weeks leave a viable option for Irish families.

Tech industry leads the way

The government could also learn from the tech industry, as one of the first sectors to really embrace the benefits of generous parental leave. Famously, Mark Zuckerberg took two months’ paternity leave after the birth of his first daughter in 2015 and then proceeded to take two separate months’ paternity leave after the birth of his second daughter in 2017. In doing so, Zuckerberg was making an emphatic statement about Facebook’s employer culture and was widely lauded for helping to remove the stigma of paternity leave.

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Google is another tech giant bearing the fruit of these flexible workplace practices. By introducing a more liberal parental leave policy, it halved the rate at which recent mothers were leaving the organisation. Accenture also recorded a 40% decrease in new mothers leaving upon doubling its leave allowances for new parents.

Their employer strategies would suggest that by providing parents with adequate parental leave and flexibility, they are more likely to thrive upon their return to work. This is every bit as applicable to Irish SMEs as it is to global tech firms.

While this may feel anathema to many Irish SMEs, in the long run, it will likely prove more cost-effective. The cost of having a parent out of the office for an extended period of time appears less costly when offset against the value of retaining that person and avoiding the cost of finding and training a new hire.

End of the marriage bar

It’s only 45 years since the marriage bar was removed in Ireland. When it was introduced in 1933, the State wanted to shape an Ireland where the roles of men and women were cast in stone, with men the breadwinners and women the homemakers.

The policy’s removal in 1973 was a belated acknowledgement that such a vision was no longer relevant nor desirable. Even so, many women and men still feel constrained by traditional gender roles. More paternity leave will help to alleviate this but, ultimately, it will be up to private companies to reflect emerging societal changes by embracing and encouraging its use. Those that do stand to benefit from improved staff morale, an enhanced ability to attract talent, and a reputation for innovation and leadership.

Christopher Paye is General Manager of Jobs.ie.

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Christopher Paye

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