Designing Inclusive Parental Leave Policies to Better Support All Families

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy.  Click here to access the article.

In recent decades, the global LGBT+ rights movement has made significant strides towards achieving equality for LGBT+ individuals and families and reducing state-sponsored discrimination. Since 2000, 28 countries across regions and income groups have legalized same-sex marriage, including three since the start of 2019. Likewise, a growing number of countries now legally recognize adoption by same-sex couples. But how many ensure that all parents have equal access to the support they need to bond, provide care, and make ends meet as their family grows?

Despite receiving less attention from media and policymakers, laws governing paid family leave, like marriage and adoption rights, are critical to guaranteeing the equality, health, and economic security of LGBT+ families. Research has long demonstrated that providing paid parental leave has significant benefits for parents and children; providing paid leave to mothers has been shown to decrease infant mortality, increase rates of exclusive breastfeeding and on-time vaccinations, and improve post-partum mental health. Likewise, research indicates that providing paid leave to fathers in different-sex partnerships is associated with stronger relationships between fathers and their children, more equitable division of household labour, and children’s cognitive development. Many of these improvements stem simply from more involved parenting, suggesting that the increased time for caregiving enabled by paid leave is likely to have broad-based benefits for all infants and parents, regardless of sex or gender.

Over the past two decades, a growing number of countries have guaranteed paid parental leave. Among the 193 UN member states, all but eight—the United States, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Suriname, and Tonga–now provide national paid parental leave to mothers, while 108 (56%) provide leave to fathers. However, the accessibility of paid leave to same-sex parents is an under-examined area.

In this paper, we provide the first examination of the inclusivity of paid parental leave policies across high-income countries. To do this, we examine national paid family leave policies in 34 OECD countries to compare the full duration of birth-related and adoption-related leave available to different family types. We focus this analysis on three specific family types: different-sex parents, same-sex female parents, and same-sex male parents. While recent reports from multiple OECD countries document increases in the number of children being raised by same-sex couples, our research demonstrates that paid parental leave policies in some countries are not yet inclusive of families’ changing demographics.

For example, while 19 of the 34 OECD countries guarantee the same duration of birth-related leave to a same-sex female couple as to a different-sex couple, in all but four countries, same-sex male couples receive shorter durations of birth-related leave compared to both different-sex and same-sex female parents. Adoption-related leave tends to be slightly more inclusive: 19 OECD countries provide equal durations of leave to different-sex couples, same-sex female couples, and same-sex male couples. However, in two countries, same-sex male parents still receive shorter adoption-related leave than different-sex and same-sex female parents.

For same-sex male couples, the lower availability of leave reflects longstanding gender stereotypes about caregiving, alongside heteronormative expectations about family structure that have been embedded in laws and policies. Specifically, many leave policies continue to reinforce the assumption that all families will include a mother and a father, and that the mother will be the primary caregiver. These assumptions make it harder for fathers in both different-sex and same-sex partnerships to bond with and care for a new baby. As demonstrated in our other analyses, these assumptions may also greatly disadvantage single fathers.

For same-sex female couples, the most common barrier to equal durations of paid parental leave is gender-restrictive language that prohibits female partners from taking leave intended to be reserved for male partners in different-sex partnerships. The goal of reserving some leave exclusively for men is to encourage greater take-up of leave by fathers in different-sex partnerships, thus supporting greater gender equality at home and at work; prior studies have shown that women take the overwhelming majority of “gender-neutral” shared parental leave, while men are more likely to take leave when it is specifically allocated to them. For example, Iceland and Sweden both reserve an equal, non-transferable duration of leave for each parent in a couple. This “use it or lose it” approach encourages both mothers and fathers in different-sex partnerships to take paid parental leave. Our analysis reveals a common unintended consequence of this approach is that two mothers will have access to less total leave than a mother and a father. However, both Iceland and Sweden use gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language in articulating their policies, thus also supporting full access by same-sex couples: Iceland guarantees paid leave to each “parent,” while Sweden extends leave to a “parent” as well as a parent’s “spouse” or “partner.”

Both of these countries have designed paid leave policies in such a way to be inclusive of diverse family structures. In fact, analyses of Icelandic paid leave policies confirm that the current law “was changed in 2006 to address parents without mentioning the sex of the parent, in order not to discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientations.” In contrast, the majority of differences we see in parental leave availability may not reflect conscious efforts to exclude diverse families, but rather outdated legal frameworks that have failed to keep up with changing family structures. With the growing recognition of LGBT+ families, countries have reported an increase in the number of children being raised by same-sex couples, highlighting the need to design and implement inclusive work-family and social welfare policies. This includes not only paid parental leave, but other areas of social protection as well. For example, when it comes to eldercare, caregiving policies that restrict paid leave to persons with narrow familial relationships may exclude ageing LGBT+ persons from critical support, since research suggests that older LGBT+ adults are more likely to rely on support networks comprising “chosen family” rather than blood relatives. Likewise, pension policies that are not inclusive of partners, adoptive children, children of partners, or other non-biologically related persons may unintentionally exclude LGBT+ families. Understanding and addressing these policy gaps is essential to achieving full equality and social protection coverage for all families.

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About the authors

Elizabeth Wong is a Policy Analyst at the WORLD Policy Analysis Center

Aleta Sprague is a Senior Legal Analyst at the WORLD Policy Analysis Center

Jody Heyman is Founding Director of the WORLD Policy Analysis Center and Distinguished Professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health




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