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Canada lagging behind many OECD countries in paternity leave

Mario Freude, plays with his three-year-old son Noah as he holds his four-week-old son Liam.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

It's the everyday moments that have defined Montreal chef Mario Freude's paternity leave: Teaching his three-year-old son, Noah, to cook, while his wife, Alina, breastfeeds their newborn, Liam. Eating lunch on a park bench with Noah. Watching him find letters and numbers on billboards during a downtown walk. "I didn't really get to share that before," he says.

Quebec fathers, in fact, share these moments more than any other dads in Canada. It's the only province that gives fathers five weeks of paid leave for them to use or lose. Freude plans to take up to eight months, though he is already starting to reflect on the future, and whether he is willing to go back to being "this figure that disappears for nine to ten hours, and has a brief moment with the kids before they go to sleep." These first few weeks have already made a difference: "Noah will just randomly come and hug me." His son, he says, has noticed, "I am here now."

Around the world, policymakers have also noticed: It's hard to shrink the gender gap in the workplace when the cost of being a parent, in wages and time, is still more expensive for women than men. Balancing the ledger means sending more dads home to diaper duty. Use-it-or-lose-it daddy leave sends a message that men should be caregivers, and upends the notion that female workers are the only ones who vanish when baby arrives. If both parents take more equal leave when the baby arrives, then one side isn't penalized for her absence from the office, and doesn't miss promotions and pay raises that will put her career permanently on the second-tier track. She's less likely to be acclaimed resident expert of diapers and dishes.

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Dads and kids are happier too.

More than half of OECD countries now offer some form of paternity leave. Except for Quebec, Canada is not one of them. Changing this wasn't on the Liberal election platform, so don't expect a just-for-dad surprise in next week's budget. Instead, the Liberals promised to extend parental leave to 18 months, allowing parents to spread out the current one-year benefits at a lower level, and take time away from work in chunks. This won't be in the budget either, however. MaryAnn Mihychuk, the minister of employment, workforce development and labour, told The Globe and Mail this week that Ottawa still has some consulting to do. A more realistic timeline, she said, is 2017.

Consult away, because while extending parental leave plays well on the campaign trail, what the Liberals are proposing is not great policy. For starters, Ottawa doesn't plan to increase benefits, which in 2016, cover about 55 per cent of a parent's salary, up to $537 a week. That's a stretch for many families already, and means the person (i.e. Mom) with the smaller salary will still become the de facto caregiver. And while the Liberal plan may make it easier, in principle, for mothers to juggle part-time work while still receiving benefits, the downside is that they still need to find daycare. Aside from a nearby grandparent, that's neither easy nor cheap for babies. More likely, the 18 months will be used by higher-income households, which means professional women will spend even more time detached from the workforce.

An equal balance was a chief consideration when it came time for Ashley Morton, a marine electrical engineer, his wife, Kes, a senior research manager in Halifax, to divvy up their parental leave, respecting that both their careers were of equal importance. "You change the first dozen diapers or stop the baby from crying for most of the first six weeks, you are probably going to always be a bit better at it than your partner, and it ends up as 'your job,'" Ashley says. "We didn't want that dynamic to be set up in our relationship."

They decided to take the first two weeks together, alternating night feedings, and making child-raising decisions in tandem. On the first day home from the hospital, Ashley recalls sitting alone with his baby girl on the living-room sofa, afraid to move lest he wake her – Kes went out to get groceries. In the end, his wife took 16 weeks, and he took 10, eight on his own. He did most of the housework, including washing the cloth diapers. He went to story time at the library, public-health parenting sessions and even a couple municipal zoning meetings. "I wandered around and did what I was always going to do," he says, "I just had a kid weighing next to nothing on my chest while I was doing it."

Without that time, he says, "it would have been a steeper uphill climb to get to honest equality." Now, four years later, the housework and caregiving is still balanced between them. He does the laundry; she cooks most nights. He mows the lawn; she shovels the snow. But the real reward is the close bond with his daughter. "I absolutely feel like I got the full-version owner's manual for my kid, not just the executive summary."

Policymakers here have plenty of innovative international examples to study, ones with built-in incentives to encourage fathers to get that "owner's manual" in caregiving. Most of these countries have realized that this means benefits have to be higher.

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In Portugal, dads now get 20 days of paid leave, 10 of which are mandatory – 100 per cent of their salary is paid with no limits. In Sweden, in addition to specific weeks set aside for fathers, couples get a benefit bonus if they share their leave. Iceland parses it out: six months to mom, six months to dad and six months to be shared. In 2014, France earmarked up to half a year of leave for dads alone. In an effort to increase low maternal employment and improve equality at home, Korea and Japan now offer a full year off, the most generous paid paternity leave in the OECD. Less than 5 per cent of fathers, however, actually use it.

That's not true in Canada. Give dads here the time and they will take it, as Quebec's example shows. Between 2005 – the year before the paternity leave was introduced – and 2013, the percentage of fathers in the province claiming leave nearly tripled. It helped that Quebec topped up federal benefits to roughly 70 per cent of a parent's salary.

There's still work to be done, and not only one way: Ashley Morton points out that mothers also need to get better at sharing their time. Quebec's approach hasn't led the province's parents to split their leave; fathers tend to take the five weeks earmarked for them – less time, on average, than the much smaller percentage of leave-taking (and still trail-blazing) fathers in the rest of the country.

But Quebec employers can now expect male employees to spend some official leave at home with their babies in the first year – and research suggests that even a short time can nudge caregiving roles. It's hard to parse out the difference this has made, since Quebec's to-be-envied daycare program also had a huge effect on women's employment, but there is some small-scale evidence that Quebec dads who take the leave do more housework. International research has found a link between paternity leave and improved child development, more sharing of labour in the home. UBC researcher Paul Kershaw, a critic of the Liberal plan, says Iceland has struck the right balance by stretching parental time at home, while forcing dads to do their share. "The data," he says, "shows leave reserved for fathers is good for kids, good for dads, good for spousal relationships and good for gender equality."

It may also help break the glass ceiling. This was the finding of a study released in February, conducted by Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, which surveyed nearly 22,000 firms in 19 countries, measuring gender diversity and the link to profits. Along the way, the authors discovered the companies with more than 20 per cent female executives and board members tended to exist in countries with paternity leaves, covered by large benefits. (Canada, with only 7 per cent of female board members and 14 per cent of female executives, didn't make the top 10.) The most gender-balanced countries, the authors concluded, actually had "slightly less generous" maternity leave, in both time and compensation. As it happens, the study also found that having more women in decision-making ranks translated to higher profits.

To be fair, Mihychuk concedes the current parental leave proposal "is not a panacea. It is not going to help everybody." As a single mom herself, she says, "I just kept on working because I could not even imagine living on 55 per cent of my salary." But raising benefits isn't on the table. She also questions whether "maternity leave" even needs to be differentiated any more, and acknowledges the mommy penalty paid by leaving the work force for too long. "It's still a reality that employees will hire men first because they are not going to get pregnant," she says. Ideally, Mihychuk says, parents would get 24 months leave, with some of that earmarked to fathers – or even, grandparents. But this is just talk for now, of the pie-in-the-sky variety. Maybe next mandate, the minister says.

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There may come a day when mothers and fathers move more equitably between work and home – when calling it parental leave will actually mean a leave shared by the parents. We aren't there yet. Fathers in Canada want to be at home with their babies. But they need a push from Ottawa. Extra time earmarked for dad, incidentally, is what the NDP promised in their campaign. The Liberals would do well to steal the idea.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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