Mandatory shared parental leave as a means of reducing gender inequality
The High Council for Employment, which draws heavily on NBB research, devoted its latest report to the participation of women in the labour market. It concluded that considerable progress has been made in recent decades. More and more women are in fact in work, but most are working part-time so that they can take care of their children. The dilemma between professional and family responsibilities is still mainly a female one, which is why the High Council for Employment supports mandatory shared parental leave.
Parental leave as a way of reconciling personal and professional commitments...
Parental leave is a scheme designed to facilitate the combination of family commitments and employment. It is an individual right, which is not transferable to the other parent. Leave can be taken on a full-time or part-time basis, for a cumulative period of four to 40 months, until the child’s twelfth birthday. This is of course not the only scheme available to parents. So-called “time credit” to care for a child under eight years of age is similar to parental leave. These different types of leave can be combined and are subject to the same eligibility conditions.
... with a negative impact on one’s career
Taking parental leave slows down the accumulation of professional experience. This can affect the employee’s pay profile and career opportunities. In addition, some employers perceive those who take parental leave as less motivated and willing to put their careers on the back burner. This negative perception is likely to be greater for men, in line with gender stereotypes. Moreover, while men are also eligible, women are more likely to request parental leave. This tends to reinforce gender stereotypes and gaps on the labour market.
Why do women tend to prioritise family over career?
- As soon as a child arrives, the situation of the mother and the father starts to diverge
The leave for fathers and mothers when a child is born is quite different. Maternity leave is 15 weeks. Paternity leave, on the other hand, was only recently increased to four weeks (on 1 January 2023). Thus, starting from birth, the mother is at home longer with the child. This can lead to a gendered organisation of parental tasks. According to the latest survey conducted by the Ligue des familles, four out of 10 fathers do not take parental leave at all or take only a portion of it. Many fear negative consequences for their careers. The way in which leave is taken is also different. Mothers usually take 15 consecutive weeks off, while fathers tend to take leave sporadically, depending on their family and professional commitments. This inequitable division of labour usually continues when the mother returns to work.
- Gender stereotypes shape behaviour
This division of roles between men and women reflects gender stereotypes. According to these gender norms, women’s traditional task is to look after the children, while men’s is to provide for the family. There has been little change in this respect, despite more and more women entering the labour market. Couples often continue to agree on this form of organisation. Mothers who invest in their careers may feel judged and criticised. The same goes for men who look after their children, as this goes against stereotypes of masculinity. This is regrettable as the involvement of fathers in their children’s lives at an early age has multiple benefits. Not only does it help to build a special bond with the child, but it also makes it possible to share family responsibilities more equally, thereby facilitating women's participation in the workforce.
- For many mothers, the wage gap tips the scales in favour of a career break
Finances also play a role in the decision to reduce working time. Parents who take parental leave receive a lump sum, regardless of their salary. The net amount of the allowance for full-time leave is €879.15. As the woman in a couple usually earns less, the mother tends to take parental leave, to limit the household’s loss of income. For some, however, such as low-wage couples or single parents, the loss of income associated with parental leave simply makes it unaffordable.
Mandatory shared parental leave to help achieve a more balanced distribution of family responsibilities
The High Council for Employment supports mandatory shared parental leave. In other words, parental leave should only be available if both parents take it. The aim is to achieve a more balanced distribution of family responsibilities. If more fathers make use of the system, mentalities are likely to change. It is hoped that this, in turn, will reduce the stigma attached to men taking parental leave. Employers should be encouraged to adopt human resources policies that do not penalise male or female beneficiaries. An obligation to share parental leave already exists in some countries, such as Sweden and Finland, which have long made gender equality a priority.
Better arrangements for single-parent families
In single-parent families, one person shoulders the family and professional responsibilities alone. These parents need more flexibility, but have only one salary. Taking a loss of income is therefore more complicated. While the allowance has been increased for single parents to €1,479.99, parental leave is still out of reach for many of them. This group, which includes a large majority of women, is constantly growing. Adequate financial compensation and longer leave could make life easier for these more vulnerable families. It is also important to ensure that periods of parental leave count towards the calculation of pension entitlements, so as to prevent the extension of financial precarity beyond working life.
 Women's participation in the labour market - January 2023 | High Council for Employment (belgium.be).
 Parent Survey 2022, Ligue des familles.