Special Report: ‘Need to change mindset’ as nearly 50% of dads don’t take parental leave

While paid and unpaid leave for new fathers has increased and expanded in recent years, the uptake remains low, reports Political Correspondent Elaine Loughlin
Special Report: ‘Need to change mindset’ as nearly 50% of dads don’t take parental leave

Parental leave is also available to both parents and can be taken at any stage up until a child turns 12.

While paid and unpaid leave for new fathers has increased and expanded in recent years, the uptake remains low, reports Political Correspondent Elaine Loughlin.

Also in today's Special Report:

  • Case study: 'Accidental activist' says six months just isn't long enough - New parents are often confused about their entitlements.
  • Case study: Six months of family leave was 'phenomenal', says Diageo executive - Diageo now offer the same amount of paid time off to fathers and mothers.
  • Case study: Lack of maternity support a barrier to women entering public life, say politicians - Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns, Fianna Fáil senator Lisa Chambers and Labour senator Marie Sherlock on the difficulties facing female politicians entering public life.
  • 'Extended leave legislation a challenge for employers' - Maeve McElwee, Ibec's director of employer relations explains how increased employee time off can be impractical for firms.
  • Move to provide breastfeeding breaks at work for two years after birth - There is currently no legal entitlement in Ireland to breastfeeding breaks 26 weeks after a child's birth. Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman wants to change that.

ALMOST half of fathers entitled to paternity benefit do not avail of it and the level of uptake varies dramatically depending on the sector and size of company a person works in. 

While paid and unpaid leave for new fathers has increased and expanded in recent years, the uptake remains low.

Paternity benefit was introduced in 2016. This was followed by parents' leave which was brought in last year and is available to mothers and fathers – this entitlement has been increased under Budget 2021.

Parental leave is also available to both parents and can be taken at any stage up until a child turns 12.

Paternal involvement in early years can have a significant impact on child development and the recognition that mothers and fathers have caring responsibilities contributes to better work-life balance and gender equality in the labour market.

However, the statistics prove that when it comes to taking time away from work to care for young children, it is still very much left up to mothers. 

Last year, paternity leave was paid to 3.1 men per 100 employees, a slight increase on the 2018 rate of 2.9. This is still well below the rate of maternity benefit which was paid to 5.3 per 100 employees in 2019, according to data released by the Central Statistics Office (CSO).

Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman said it was disappointing to see that paid benefits are not being taken up. 

"I think we have more to do to change that mindset about the division of responsibility when it comes to caring for children.

"There's a societal element to all of this as well and that deeper question of who cares for children, and an approach that all of us and particularly men need to take, that we have an absolute responsibility in terms of caring for children. It has to be understood that it is a shared responsibility of parents," he said.

Jim McGrath availed of the two weeks paid paternity leave when his daughter Amelia arrived in March. He believes the entitlement is massively important for fathers, but equally new mothers need the support of their partners in the immediate aftermath of giving birth.

"I would say it's actually essential," he said.

However, Mr McGrath said it can be difficult for fathers to take additional unpaid time off work, especially if the other parent is also on leave.

If one member of the family is going on unpaid leave, it's very difficult for another person to be on unpaid leave, whether that's the man or the woman. 

"It would be very hard for any household to be down two salaries," he said.

Trinity College Dublin assistant professor of sociology Yekaterina Chzhen said Ireland is ahead when it comes to providing fathers with an entitlement to leave.

"Not all European Union countries, and not all OECD countries have something for fathers so to have two weeks that's an entitlement enshrined in law, that's great. And it is paid, but it's paid at €245 a week, which as a proportion of average earnings in Ireland pre-Covid is not a lot," she said.

Paternity benefit is more likely to be taken in larger enterprises – almost two thirds of fathers working in companies with 250 or more employees availed of the entitlement.

This is in stark contrast to micro-enterprises with fewer than 10 employees, which had the largest proportion of fathers who did not take paternity benefit, with just 37.9% availing of the leave.

UCD assistant professor in social policy Stephan Koppe found that the arrangement of statutory flat rate benefits and voluntary employer top-ups contributes to "occupational and class inequalities".

"Employees in larger companies and the public sector, often associated with a higher-qualified workforce, benefit from these fringe benefits, while working-class employees and self-employed are left out," Dr Koppe wrote in a paper published last year.

He pointed to a survey of 400 companies carried out by Ibec in 2016, which found that about 37% of employers top up the statutory paternity benefit, however, there is large variation among employers and sectors.

This figure has increased slightly, with 46% of companies now providing salary top-ups during paternity leave.

Overall, larger and foreign-owned companies in the urban centres are more likely to offer top-ups, with 61% of financial service and 75% of telecom companies offering a top-up. 

This compares to only 27% of retail companies, which Dr Koppe said "creates sectoral inequalities".

CSO statistician Dermot Kinane said work carried out by the office to examine employment data of people who received maternity and paternity benefits showed the rate of take-up of paternity benefit was below 60%  than that of maternity benefit in 2019.

"The highest rate of paternity benefit in 2019 was 5.6 per 100 employees in public administration and defence, while the lowest rate that same year was in accommodation and food service activities at 1.1 per 100 employees," he said.

Network Ireland president and HR specialist Louisa Meehan suggested the only way to increase the uptake of paternity leave and to encourage equality is to make at least part of the scheme mandatory so it becomes "acceptable and expected".

"It's about the culture of the organisation. You either have a culture where it's acceptable to take it or you don't. 

"Whether you're allowed to or not, if the culture is that you don't then you won't and it's incredibly difficult to break through that culture. For it to be more equal, it needs to be mandatory, it needs to be not an option," she said.

Case study: 'Accidental activist' says six months just isn't long enough

Mother of three Paula Solan says new parents are often confused about their entitlements. 'They think that they are entitled to it so therefore they will get it, but they don't realise that they have to apply separately.'

Mother-of-three Paula Solan became an "accidental activist" earlier this year and found herself leading a campaign to extend paid maternity leave.

Her third son Quinn was born in January, meaning she has spent a good chunk of her leave in lockdown and largely isolated from the usual supports of family, friends, and mothers' groups.

She believes maternity leave should be expanded and paid up until at least the first year of childhood and proper parental leave also needs to be rolled out to allow partners to take a number of months off.

"I think you rely a lot on your family, probably even more so as time goes on," she says. 

"You know what to do when it's your third child, but you might need some help in terms of trying to keep the other two occupied as well so that they're getting a little bit more attention than just the baby all the time. It was very different [in lockdown] even in terms of trying to get out and about." 

Ms Solan said juggling breastfeeding with homeschooling in the early days was a challenge.

Her mother lives in Wexford and was cocooning, so couldn't travel up to help the family who live in Lusk, Co Dublin, while her father-in-law lives in Co Meath, meaning they were unable to visit him either.

"It was lonely," she says. "When you have a newborn, it's nice to be able to sometimes hand over the baby for 30 minutes to have a shower, just to get a little bit of sanity back."

She also missed the support of her local mother-and-baby group and meeting up with others on maternity leave to share advice and even just a chat.

Paula Solan with son Quinn, 10 months, in Lusk, Co Dublin. Taking extra time from work was a big decision for her family. 'I do find that while the Government may be trying to make things a little bit better, it has become too complicated now,' she says. Picture: Moya Nolan
Paula Solan with son Quinn, 10 months, in Lusk, Co Dublin. Taking extra time from work was a big decision for her family. 'I do find that while the Government may be trying to make things a little bit better, it has become too complicated now,' she says. Picture: Moya Nolan

Visits from the public health nurse were curtailed and developmental checks were postponed as a result of the pandemic.

"I feel that I was in a good place because I'd had two other babies before, so I had made a network in Lusk from previously meeting mothers at that group. But I really feel for the mothers who are maybe first-time mothers or who moved to the area recently and don't have that kind of network or that level of support. I think it's very tough."

Ms Solan, who works in clinical research, has decided to take six months unpaid leave on top of the 26 weeks maternity leave offered. She will also be using her holidays to get her to the end of the year.

However, taking that extra time from work was a big consideration for the family due to the financial implications.

"I have to keep the places in childcare for the boys, so I have to pay that even when I'm off. For Quinn, my youngest, I have had to start paying for him as well.

I haven't gone back to work and I am using my unpaid leave, but I have to pay to keep his place in creche too. So our childcare is more than one-and-a-half times the price of our mortgage every month.

She says many mothers have contacted her through the campaign's Facebook page as they often are unsure about their entitlements.

While maternity leave is widely availed of, she said accessing the extra parents' leave and parental leave can pose problems for many women and men.

"I have spoken to a good few people who work in areas like hairdressing who say: 'I can't ask for that because I will lose my job, I won't have a job to go back to', they're already in a difficult situation with the lockdown closures and things like that.

 

"I do find that while the Government may be trying to make things a little bit better, it has become too complicated now. There's maternity leave, parental leave, parents' leave, and paternity leave.

"People are really confused, they think that they are entitled to it so therefore they will get it, but they don't realise that they have to apply separately."

She said she would have loved to have seen the extension of maternity leave "as a kind of recognition of the kind of unique challenges that mothers are facing during the Covid period".

"But ultimately, I'd love to see maternity leave extended, because I think it's too short."

Case study: Six months of family leave was 'phenomenal', says Diageo executive

Diageo is among a number of companies that have moved ahead of the Government and now offer the same amount of paid time off to fathers and mothers.

James Davis, Diageo's revenue and category growth director for Ireland, was one of the first fathers to avail of the 26 weeks of paid leave after his son Oliver arrived last year.

The scheme allows for six months at full pay in one go at any point during the first year of the baby's life. Mr Davis took time away from work last October and returned in March of this year.

"Roz, my wife, took 12 months of maternity leave from her employer so we did have the full six months off as a family, which was phenomenal.

Literally being able to be involved in everything with Oliver and Roz at home, means that in our house, there isn't 'dad's duties' and 'mum's duties', we were able just get involved in everything.

"I loved it. I think Oliver will have gotten a lot from it too. The bond I've got with him, I think it would be incredible anyway, but I'm so grateful to have been able to spend that time with him," he said.

The drinks giant announced that it would be rolling out the measure to employees in Ireland, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or how people become parents from July of last year.

Mr Davis was certain he wanted to take the leave — but being one of the first to avail of the scheme, he did have some reservations, and questioned whether his decision would be fully supported by senior management.

"The thought obviously crosses your mind, because it's very well to announce a policy, but you know there are thoughts in your head about 'what does this mean?'.

"But the encouragement I got from senior management to take the leave was amazing, and so that completely put my put my mind at rest," he said. 

Mr Davis, who has worked for the company for 13 years, said it was the first considerable block away from his job, and this time gave him a new perspective on his career.

"I came back to work into a new role which Diageo supported me on whilst I was away," he said. "And actually, I think Diageo got back probably a more energised employee because you kind of realise what's important, and having that time away to reflect and then go into the next phase my career has been great from that perspective as well."

James Davis and his son Ollie. 'The bond I've got with him, I think it would be incredible anyway, but I'm so grateful to have been able to spend that time with him," James said. Photo: Paraic Gallagher
James Davis and his son Ollie. 'The bond I've got with him, I think it would be incredible anyway, but I'm so grateful to have been able to spend that time with him," James said. Photo: Paraic Gallagher

Having returned to work, he says he has been surprised and encouraged by the number of male colleagues who have approached him and who are thinking of taking the leave themselves.

"In my team at the moment, I think over the next 12 months there will be three guys going on family leave."

He said the six-month period also gives employees who fill in for those on leave a meaningful enough time to gain a new experience and to avail of different opportunities within work, which helps to build and grow their career.

"Particularly in the world we live in now where you need to be agile and you are wanting to shift things around a bit, it just creates more opportunities for people," he says.

Mr Davis said the measure also levels the playing field, especially when it comes to the recruitment and promotion of women.

"Whilst legally mothers and expectant mothers are protected by law, I think there are large numbers of women that feel across a number of companies that their career may have been held back by starting a family," he said.

Diageo HR director Sandra Caffrey said the company decided to introduce the scheme to support employees, but she also believes the scheme encourages retention of staff and will attract the best talent to the firm.

"It's a huge transition for employees to become parents, whether it's for the first time or subsequent times," she says. "We want employees to really enjoy that experience."

She said there has been a strong and consistent take-up of the scheme across all levels of the business, which is also encouraging.

Case study: Lack of maternity support a barrier to women entering public life, say politicians

Female politicians have claimed that a lack of maternity support and leave is greatly hampering women entering public life.

While there are varying opinions among female elected members, politicians believe that the current system is not family friendly and can act as a barrier to those wanting to put themselves forward for election.

Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns says the lack of maternity leave, in particular, is leading to a gender imbalance.

Ms Cairns is now drafting a bill to provide for maternity leave for female councillors, senators, and TDs.

She said the Oireachtas Bills office is working on options such as allowing a deputy to sit in for a politician who is on leave, or giving women the option of voting remotely while on maternity leave.

Ms Cairns said:

Maternity leave is not a perk and it is not a pay rise. It is a human right. 

"Female-dominated industries are often the undervalued and underpaid ones.

“We have to ask, if there were more women at the decision-making table, would this be the case? If there were maternity provisions for female politicians, would there be more of them at the decision-making tables?

“There are 36 women TDs here out of a total of 124. It is an absolute disgrace," she recently told the Dáil.

Fianna Fáil senator Lisa Chambers, who had her first child earlier this year, says that providing maternity leave to politicians simply would not work and, instead, additional wraparound supports are needed to allow them to continue to do their job with a new baby.

"In this job you don't take six months out, it's like being self-employed, you just don't," said Ms Chambers. "You wouldn't have a job to come back to if you did that; what we need is more support."

Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns is drafting a bill to provide maternity leave for female councillors, senators, and TDs. In this job you don't take six months out, she says. Picture: Denis Minihane
Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns is drafting a bill to provide maternity leave for female councillors, senators, and TDs. In this job you don't take six months out, she says. Picture: Denis Minihane

The Mayo senator said she availed of a relatively new entitlement which allows politicians to hire an extra person for the first six months of the child's life.

"That was a massive help. Even if there was some sort of an allowance given to cover costs if you had to bring the baby to Dublin with you."

Labour senator Marie Sherlock, who had her third child just four months after her election to the local council in 2019, said greater flexibility is needed to encourage women to stay in politics while rearing their children.

"We know that some women want to continue attending meetings, others do not, and a lot depends on whether it's your first baby or not," said Ms Sherlock. "For me, it was my third baby so I had my baby at a meeting 10 days after she was born.

"We need to recognise that women who are elected representatives should have time off when they give birth and then there could be a system of proxy voting or somebody could be put in as replacement.

"The conversation needs to be had with elected representatives on their experiences and I am not sure that those conversations have taken place," she said.

During a Dáil debate on the issue, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said maternity leave should be provided as it is in other jurisdictions and said he would look into the matter.

'Extended leave legislation a challenge for employers'

Ibec says increased employee time off can be impractical, writes Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations.

Ibec is broadly supportive of any work-life balance and family-friendly legislation, and it recognises the benefits to employers and employees of such provisions. 

However, the diverse landscape that is family-friendly legislation in Ireland is not without its challenges.

Budget 2021 updated this area by extending parents' leave and benefit from two weeks for each parent to five weeks. This extension will be made available retrospectively to parents of children born or adopted on or after November 1, 2019 — 'Covid babies’.

Parental leave, in contrast to parents' leave set out above, is a period of unpaid leave that parents are now entitled to take up until the child is 12, which has been increased from the previous age limit of up to 8 years. The duration of parental leave was also increased, from 22 weeks to 26 weeks, from September 2020.

Paternity leave entitles the relevant parent to two weeks' leave, during which the individual would receive paternity benefit, if eligible.

Some of the challenges around the legislation originate from the fact that paternity legislation drew on the provisions of the maternity legislation, while parents' benefit was based largely on the parental leave legislation.

This development of the legislation has been inconsistent, with different requirements in each of the pieces of protected leave legislation, which has given rise to considerable confusion and some very practical challenges for employers.

An example is the issue surrounding an employer's ability to postpone requested leave for business reasons, which differ under parents' leave and parental leave. 

That said, the national legislation is in keeping with our upcoming obligations under European legislation, notably under the work-life balance directive, which will require member states to have 10 working days' paternity leave in place.

While the extension of the family-friendly legislation is welcomed by employers, it is the case that for small- and medium-sized organisations in particular, there are challenges posed by the extension of statutory leave provisions. 

In addition to the administration costs of leave, there are significant challenges for employers in managing productivity and avoiding a negative impact on the business, reallocating duties to other employees, while protecting the role of the individual who is on protective leave.

The costs of recruitment, training, and induction to backfill roles are also considerations for employers challenged with managing increasing periods of statutory leave.

It is important to recognise the opportunities that extended periods of statutory leave can provide for other employees or workers, affording opportunities to build experience and skills in 'acting-up' roles when covering periods of statutory leave. 

For these reasons, it is important that we remember that short-term and contract working can be positive for workers, and is critical for employers to ensure continuity of operations and the replacement of key skills.

Our recent survey results indicate that 46% of companies are providing salary top-ups during paternity leave. In terms of parents' leave, 23% of employers are paying a top-up payment. 35% are topping up for two weeks, with a further 35% indicating that they will match the number of statutory weeks for top-up.

Many complex factors influence how parents decide to avail of statutory leave for the purpose of childcare.

The level of payment is only one factor. We know, from work carried out by Eurofound, that even in Sweden, which provides both significant time off and payment for family leave, in addition to strongly promoting a culture of men participating in shared parenting, only 14% of parents overall share the family leave available equally.

Protective leave for fathers is a step forward in addressing female labour market participation — but achieving an equal distribution of responsibility for childcare will require a significant investment in the many factors that influence our individual decisions on how we share family leave entitlements.

Move to provide breastfeeding breaks at work for two years after birth

Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman wants to provide breastfeeding breaks at work for up to two years after a child is born.

Ireland has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world with only two out of three women initiating it before being discharged from hospital.

The World Health Organisation recommends that all babies be breastfed exclusively for the first six months and for breastfeeding to continue as part of the infant’s diet for two years and beyond.

However, the most recent figures show that just 13% of Irish babies are breastfed after six months, compared with a European average of 25% and a global average of 38%.

Women who are in employment and are breastfeeding are entitled to take a paid hour off work each day as a breastfeeding break for up to 26 weeks after birth. However, there is currently no legal entitlement to breastfeeding breaks after this time.

Mr O'Gorman said extending this to two years "should be the objective".

"In most European countries, up to maybe two years after birth, a woman can take either breaks or time in lieu of breaks for breastfeeding," said Mr O'Gorman.

Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman wants to provide breastfeeding breaks at work for up to two years after a child is born. Picture: iStock/PA
Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman wants to provide breastfeeding breaks at work for up to two years after a child is born. Picture: iStock/PA

"It's known in Ireland that breastfeeding ends earlier than in a lot of our European neighbours and this is one step towards trying to achieve a better rate of breastfeeding and trying to achieve parity with that with our European neighbours."

He said his department plans to consult with employers to extend the amount of time given for breastfeeding breaks, adding that this could be done on a phased basis.

"It ties into a wider public health goal as well that I think is important," he said.

Trinity College assistant professor of sociology Yekaterina Chzhen said the current system is pointless for many women as they are often on maternity leave for the first 26 weeks.

"The idea that workplaces are supposed to provide breastfeeding facilities or time off for breastfeeding, but only for the first 26 weeks, that's a little bit funny, because most women are still on maternity leave at the time," said Dr Chzhen. "So it would be good if employers could give longer than that. 

We have one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the developed world, which means in the whole world, because developing countries tend to have higher rates.

Cork South West TD Holly Cairns has called on the Government to lead by example by providing suitable facilities for public service workers who are breastfeeding.

She said she had been contacted by some mothers who had recently returned to work in the public service who said the only space made available for them to express milk was a toilet.

“As the law currently stands, employers are not obliged to provide facilities in the workplace to facilitate breastfeeding if it would prove too costly," said Ms Cairns. 

"While this is understandable in the case of small and medium employers, I think it is reasonable to expect large companies and Government departments to provide appropriate facilities."

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