Want to improve gender equality at work? Help men take parental leave

Want to improve gender equality at work? Help men take parental leave.

If you are serious about building gender equality in your organization, you may already have a strong maternity leave policy in place.  One of the more powerful next steps you can take is to implement a paternal and parental leave policy and then enable men to take that leave.

The future of work is shaping up to include a strong focus on diversity, equitable benefits and fair policies for all. Working with men to improve equity for women may sound counterintuitive—after all, shouldn’t we expect maternity leave to be more directly impactful to women? Yes, but it turns out that creating a culture that encourages fathers to take time off work has profound correlative and causative effects for everyone, with a broad impact across societal norms, organizational culture, pay equity, gender equality, and the overall health and wealth of employees and their families. That means that by creating policies that include both men and women, we are able to identify and eliminate barriers to taking leave for everyone.


In our second Global Parental Leave Report, Mercer has found that 80% of companies include paternal leave as part of their global parental leave policies, and 61% offer expanded parental leave that covers both men and women. Most often fathers have access to unpaid leave (which reduces its use significantly, as it carries a compensation penalty for families just when they are incurring increased costs). 83% of men will routinely take paid leave, according to the survey—but only 13% of men will routinely take unpaid leave.

Portion of employees using paternity leaveFigure 1. Source: Mercer Global Parental Leave Report

Globally, three quarters of companies told us that 80% or more of their eligible employees use their paid paternity leave. But in developed nations that number is shockingly much lower. In over a quarter of companies in G7 countries, fewer than 30% of eligible employees use even their fully-paid paternity leave.

Applying some math to the statistics in Figure 1, above, we can infer that there are at least 23% of men in G7 countries who could be taking paid paternal leave, but are not. This is a huge missed opportunity when you consider the benefits of that leave on employees, families and company culture, which deserves closer scrutiny.


There can be some confusion around the differences between parental leave and maternal or paternal leave - partly due to different laws and practices around the globe.  Our study covers all these types of leaves, under the umbrella of “global parental leave” - though this article is taking a closer look mainly at the leave that men are eligible to take. 

In some countries, the Mercer study found, some form of leave for parents of both sexes is required by law - though usually women are provided with longer leave options. Paternity leave is sometimes specified, and sometimes conflated into overall parental leave - which might apply to birth or non-birth parents of any gender.

Let’s take a quick moment to share some definitions:

  1. Maternity leave: is related directly to the birth of a child. Generally, this applies to the birth mother. Sometimes there will be a provision for an adoptive mother.
  2. Paternity leave:  is a short leave (generally a couple of days or weeks) for the father that occurs around the time of the birth or adoption.
  3. Parental leave: is additional leave that is typically taken in the first year of the child—or sometimes up to age three. It is often added on to the maternity portion of leave, but may also be available for a father or same sex partner to use. Some countries specify that the parental leave portion of leave may be used by adoptive parents, rather than maternity or paternity leave.
  4. Adoption leave: is frequently covered in one of the above, but may be laid out explicitly in some company policies.


Parental leave is a recent global phenomenon. In the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women began to enter the global workforce in ever-greater numbers—but they were largely treated as temporary workers. New mothers in the U.S. usually left the workforce of their own volition—being largely responsible for childcare—but if they didn’t choose to go, they could legally be fired for even becoming pregnant (and many were). Maternity or paternity leave were barely dreamt of, anywhere in the world.

In the U.S., by the late 1960’s, as women began to focus on careers, things began to shift a little. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. Many states also began to pass some form of legal protections and family leave laws—but up until the passing of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), still only about 40% of working women had access to maternity leave protection.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is now interpreting Title VII to require employers to offer non-disability related paid parental leave to employees on an equal basis, regardless of gender. Outside the US, fathers or same-sex partners were generally not included in explicit parental protections.

Today, 184 countries offer some form of paid or unpaid parental leave. The United States—along with Suriname, Papua New Guinea, and a few Pacific Island nations—is one of only a handful of nations that do not require employers to provide some form of paid time off for new parents.

Based on 2015 Department of Labor and Census records, one study estimated that only about 10% of men and 40% of women are able to take any time off with the arrival of a child in the US. However, Mercer's 2018 Survey on Absence and Disability Management show that the tide may be changing—roughly 40% of employers are now providing paid time off for both birth parents (after disability) and non-birth parents (immediately following birth), a significant increase from roughly 25% in 2015. 


For fathers in particular, taking leave can be challenging everywhere in the world. There simply aren’t as many statutory laws in place to specifically support them.

According to a June 2018 report by UNICEF: “almost two-thirds of the world's children under age 1 — nearly 90 million — live in countries where dads are not entitled by law to take paid paternity leave.”

With governments not focused on fathers, their access to parental or paternal leave generally comes down to the policies of individual employers.

Figure 2. Source: World Policy Analysis Center at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health

Mercer’s new report has found that 80% of large global employers do explicitly offer paternity leave (paid or unpaid). Whether or not it is taken seems to be in direct relation to if it is paid and if it is required. If, as we observed above, around 23% of new fathers in G7 countries like the U.S. are declining to take even paid paternity leave, we must ask why?

Figure 3. Source: Mercer Global Parental Leave Report

These reasons range from the highly individual and personal, to economic, to societal stigmas that still linger around G7 fathers who take time for child bonding or domestic chores. One other clue lies in Mercer’s data, which shows that few companies are actually working to create a culture that enables men to take the leave. Consider, for example, the U.S, where 35% of employers do not actively encourage men to take their leave.


This reluctance to encourage men to take paternity or parental leave is puzzling when you consider the way everyone benefits when they do. Men, their partners, their children, and their companies are all more likely to thrive if men spend time with their children in the time after their arrival. Here some of the ways:

It’s better for men.

Studies show that father-and-baby bonding during paternity leave actually improves a dad’s ability to care for children in the long term, enabling him to be a more engaged and involved parent. Paternity leave also has a positive impact on men’s relationships. In Norway, following the introduction of a four-week paternity leave, a study found an 11% lower level of conflict over household division of labor.  A study in Sweden found that couples were 30% less likely to separate if the father took more than two weeks off to care for a first child. Another study even showed that higher level of participation in paternity leave was associated with lower mortality in fathers with depression. 

It’s better for women.

Paternal leave is hugely impactful for women, both at home and at work. When men take parental leave, women see a decline in overall levels of post-partum depression and sick leave, and increases in well-being,

At work, the benefits are even more stark. Women at work suffer from what is known as the “motherhood penalty.”  Research shows that hourly wages of mothers are approximately 5% lower relative to childless women, that they are 79% less likely to be interviewed and hired, and that they are offered lower wages when they are hired. Mothers are also half as likely to be promoted. However, when spouses take leave, a recent study found, women’s salaries on average are approximately 7% higher for every month of leave men take. In fact, each month a father is on leave has a greater effect on maternal earnings than maternal leave does, according to that study.

If men are encouraged to take the same leave that women do—allowing them to shoulder similar responsibility for child caregiving—it creates a level playing ground and expectation, in which the disproportionate penalty on women’s pay and advancement opportunities could be mitigated.

It’s better for children .

Children whose fathers take parental leave also benefit from having Dad at home in their first weeks. Kids whose fathers take paternity leave show better developmental outcomes, improved performance in school, and improved cognitive scores and mental health outcomes as they grow older.

It’s better for companies.

Companies may stand to gain the most from encouraging men to take parental leave. Between 89% to 99% of employers say leave has no dispositive effect on productivity, profitability, turnover and morale, according to one study. According to studies in both Scotland and the U.S., fathers and parents of both sexes who received parental leave were more likely to stay with their companies.  In Quebec, a study has shown that paternity leave is associated with a mother’s ability to return to the same employer—a significant advantage to companies hoping to keep good talent—provided the practice becomes widespread.

Perhaps most importantly, paternity leave is proving to be the key to addressing the pay equity gap. Because working mothers are still doing the bulk of the parenting work at home, their upward mobility in the workplace is hindered and they fall behind. By allowing men to help shoulder responsibility from the start we can help equalize the effects of maternity leave and motherhood on the development, compensation and overall equality of women in our organizations.


This new research from Mercer on paid parental leave, combined with Mercer’s When Women Thrive research, suggests that we can do much better as employers by providing paid paternity or parental leave and enabling and encouraging men to take the leave they already have.

Here are five areas to consider working on as you build your workforce for the future:

  1. Have parental leave policies in place for men.
    Take a harder look at your existing paternal leave policies. Expand your paternity policy to match your maternity policy. Or better yet, implement a non-gender-biased parental leave policy across the board. If you have a policy in place that isn’t working: revise it. Offer paid paternity leave if you can; our data shows men are significantly more likely to take it when it is paid rather than unpaid. (See Figure 1.)

  2. Help leadership truly understand and support the benefits of paternal leave.

    Even the best paternity leave will not be used if leadership does not support it. Due to demographics, leadership tends to be older and more male in composition—and data shows that those groups often take a far different view of paternity leave and the role of fathers at home than their younger colleagues. It is vital for you to build more engagement around these leave programs by first educating those leaders to support and employ them. Help them to understand the long-term benefits of parental leave. Get them on board, supportive and informed. Encourage them to take paternity leave themselves, or demonstrate the desired behavior by taking time with grandchildren and being transparent about any time away from work. (See Figure 4, below).

     A cultural mind-shift may be needed to help leaders understand the business imperative of addressing the gender gap—and the power of paternity leave to help. Share statistics and benchmarks to help your leaders pave the way.

  3. Build a culture that genuinely supports paternal leave.

    Support for paternity leave involves bringing more than just leaders on board. Your entire culture must come along and actively support and manage policies. Many companies will require significant education to encourage—or even require—leave for men. Men whose peers support paternity leave, studies show, are significantly more likely to take it, so be sure all employees understand your focus on supporting parental leave for both mothers and fathers. Consider implementing resource groups for working fathers to increase their socialization and feelings of peer support.

    It’s also important that HR and departmental policies and practices don’t punish fathers through inflexibility. Researchers have shown that many men work longer hours and earn more after becoming parents, but if they need to reduce or change work hours for family reasons, they may experience a “flexibility stigma” that depresses earnings and limits career opportunities. Men who wish to take off work to care for a sick child, for example, often experience resistance, particularly if a female parent is available. It is important that you not only provide parental leave to male employees, but also facilitate their ongoing participation in caregiving by enabling more flexible leave over time.

    Some companies will also allow men to use their paternity leave in creative ways, to further reduce the burden on working families—such as taking one day a week over a longer frame of time. Support them in using their time in the way that makes most sense to them, even if that involves something unexpected such as taking their partner away on vacation, or using it to relax and energize.

  4. Provide more education, resources and support for line managers.

    An employer’s most significant work relationship is with their direct supervisor, so it is critical for you to get line managers on board with your policy. More than a few managers subtly undermine paternal leave—consciously or unconsciously. According to Mercer, only 26% of managers, globally, encourage men to take leave. (See Figure 4, below.)

    Educate managers on biases and help them to understand the benefits of leave to the business.  If managers are struggling to understand how and where to be flexible, or how to communicate with parents around leave, consider allocating a “leave coach” to advise managers on the nuances of the law and your policies. (If you lack the resources or knowledge to coach them, you may want to consider outsourcing this function to a consultancy.) This is probably the most critical piece to get right, as a manager’s approach to leave and flexibility will directly impact an employee’s decision to take leave.

    Figure 4. Source: Mercer Global Parental Leave Report

  5. Work to build more social support for leave.

    Taking paternity leave can be difficult for some men, simply due to the societal stigma it still holds. Consider the story of Daniel Murphy, former second baseman for the New York Mets. In 2016, he was berated by sports commentators when he took the three days of paternity leave he was allowed by MLB. More and more millennials seem to be discarding this notion and embracing paternity leave as a generation, but the stigma of caregiving for fathers is still very real. You can help to normalize and remove the social stigma against men taking leave by working on your own culture and also by sharing your story widely.

    In addition to leadership and work culture, companies can help to socialize parental leave for men by publicizing their efforts and directly confronting the gender socialization and social stigma that discriminate and reinforce the outdated  idea that caregiving is “women’s work.” In a 2017 survey by Pew, only 69% of people supported paid parental leave for fathers vs. 82% support for mothers.

    Providing and encouraging paternal leave also won’t hurt your employer brand. In fact, companies who take a stand on facilitating paternal leave will enhance their overall employee value proposition.

Learn more about the current state of parental leave and gain the insights you need to prepare your workforce for the future by reading Mercer’s Global Parental Leave Report. For more information on U.S. parental leave trends, be on the lookout for the upcoming release of Mercer's 2018 Survey on Absence and Disability, which is scheduled for release in late 2018.

Emily Eaton
by Emily Eaton

Principal, US

Carole Jackson
by Carole Jackson

Diversity & Inclusion Research and Consulting, Mercer