Whether or not it takes off in the form of government policy– President Trump included a $25 billion plan in a proposed 2018 federal budget — or as a normal company perk, paid paternity leave is starting to look like an inevitability, even in the leave-averse United Stated. Still, even as advocates make the push for the expansion of parental leave, they are grappling with the knowledge that a win won’t necessarily be enough. Conflating demand for parental leave with the eventual taking of parental leave assumes that fathers will quickly jettison gender norms and suspicions of their corporate masters. If programs in Japan and Britain are any indication (and there’s plenty of reason to believe they are), incentives will be needed to aid the pioneering generation of leave-takers.
“Where parental leave pioneers take their full allotment of leave, while also continuing to progress in their career, others are following,” says Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, director of corporate partnerships at the Boston College Center for Work and Family, which published a report called The New Millennial Dad: Understanding the Paradox of Today’s Fathers in 2016.
Policymakers in Japan are determined to foster a shift towards a more gender-neutral division of labor. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe wants to see men’s parental leave rates bump up to 13 percent by 2020, in an attempt to revitalize the ageing workforce in a country where pets outnumber children. But real progress takes more than just the introduction of new legal guidelines. And Japan isn’t the only country struggling. Across the pond, the UK is fighting its own battle to persuade dads to take time out. Shared parental leave, where both parents can split their leave as they see fit, is the buzz in Britain right now. In both countries, social realities have limited the effects of political progress. In both places, that has a lot to do with gender politics and, in particular, with corporate gender politics.
Despite being one of the world’s most advanced economies, Japan still nurtures the traditional stereotype of job-oriented, male breadwinners. And, no matter how progressive government legislation may be, it can’t erase cultural heritage overnight. The corporate ladder is overwhelmingly dominated by men, and women account for less than one percent of business executives in the country.
On the one hand, it has one of the most accommodating policies in the world when it comes to new parents. Every parent, whether it’s mom or dad, can spend 12 months at home with their newborn, and they’ll still be entitled to 60 percent of their salary during that time. On the flipside, just two percent of new fathers take advantage of the generous allowance available to them. Exactly why this is the case comes down to a complicated mix of social and cultural pressures.
“The post-war Japanese economy is based on this gendered division of labor,” says Dr. Brigitte Steger, senior lecturer in modern Japanese studies at Cambridge University. “Men do the productive work full-time – and I mean really full-time – and women do the reproductive work.”
Back in 2010, a Tokyo district mayor caused a media storm by becoming the first local government official to take paternity leave. Hironobu Narisawa took a modest two-week hiatus to care for his newborn, but the papers in Japan lost their shit over the idea that a male public official would voluntarily take time off work.
Workplace stigmatization underpins the whole problem. Generally, Japanese dads believe that taking leave will harm their corporate stature and ruin their promotion prospects. But while men are discouraged from taking leave, women are often pressured to leave work permanently. After having their first child, only 38 percent of Japanese women return to the labor force.
“Men have to show their commitment to the company through continuous service,” explains Dr Helen Macnaughtan, chair of the Japan Research Centre at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “Remote and flexible working isn’t popular, and when rolled out by employers, it’s primarily offered to working mothers.”
Britain’s approach to parental leave, offering a year-long allowance that can be divided up between parents, was intended to allow families to make decisions tailored to their situations rather than traditional gender norms. Still, mothers are required to cover the first two weeks and it has hardly been a panacea. This framework offers flexibility, but the take-up rate by men is still low with just 1 in 100 choosing to utilize it at all. One driving influence is the perception that financial pressures are too heavy to warrant fathers taking leave. And that’s not just a gender construct: Men earn 9.4 percent more than women in the UK.
“There is appetite, but the biggest factor is pay,” explains Mubeen Bhutta, head of campaigns and policy at Working Families, a UK organization that advocates for parental rights. “We want employers to fund shared parental leave to the same tune that they do with maternity leave so that it’s not a second-class option.”
While bosses can choose to be more charitable, the statutory allowance for shared parental leave is a lean £140 ($182) – around a quarter of a Brit’s average weekly wage. There’s a clear gap between idea and ideal that the UK has yet to bridge effectively.
If there’s anything to learn from Japan and Britain, it’s that generations of social tradition take time to evaporate, and redefining culture in the workplace is no smoother transition. The idea of men taking time off to be with their children isn’t radical. But advocating for it ultimately means advocating for a constellation of policies intended to encourage that behavior. Otherwise, many parental leave laws remain gestures in the direction of progress that do not substantively affect the behavior of employees.
If parental leave behavior is about gender politics, it also informs gender politics. Research has shown that paid paternity leave leads to more women staying in the workplace and having better vocational outcomes, which is to say higher salaries. For better or worse, this means that paternity leave represents a virtuous cycle. The key is starting that cycle and that, it turns out, is the hard part.