Will fathers in Switzerland soon have access to leave?

Signatures are currently being collected for a federal popular initiative calling for the introduction of a 4-week-long paid paternity leave in Switzerland. Over the past two decades, there have been a few dozen motions in favour of parental or paternity leave – high time therefore to gain insights into the stakes of this latest initiative. Evidence from research clearly suggests that leave polices can help counter gender inequalities. Most parents in Switzerland live in configurations where the fathers work full-time and the mothers part-time – a pattern which often has been induced with the birth of the first child. While there are many reasons for this, research has shown that leave policies may counter such gender inequalities provided that both parents take advantage of the leave and that these are well paid, universal and collectively funded. The set-up of the paternity leave proposed by the federal popular initiative includes some of these elements, namely: 4 weeks of leave paid at 80% in the same way as maternity leave. Should fathers’ involvement in child care increase, one may expect significant changes in the long run. Not only do leaves taken at childbirth provide crucial support for mothers, but they also get fathers used to daily care work with babies. As studies in Europe show, fathers who take leaves also devote less time to their work in the medium-term. Not surprisingly therefore paternity and parental leaves set the stage for a more egalitarian distribution of family and professional roles within the couple.

Becoming a parent increases inequality in a couple

The birth of a child brings many changes to a couple’s life course. It’s a time when new skills are acquired and when parents learn to get to know and take care of their child. It’s also during these first few weeks and months that new habits are created: who does the grocery shopping? Who makes dinner? Who feeds and changes the baby? Important decisions must be made, such as a possible reduction of working hours as well as the organisation of daycare.

In Switzerland and elsewhere the birth of a child leads to the specialisation of roles within a couple. According to the Swiss Federal Office of Statistics, in 2014, in 77% of couples with a least one child under 7, the husband worked full time while the wife worked part time or not at all. These gender inequalities are the result of many mechanisms including, among others, the influence of the institutional context and of family policies. In addition to early childhood daycare facilities that are essential to balance family life and career, the leave system has an influence over the division of labor between mothers and fathers.

Leave policies in Switzerland: a gendered system

Professionally active mothers have the right to a maternity leave paid at 80% of their salary for 14 weeks thanks to the Loss of earnings compensation act in case of maternity (LECA), which was passed in 2005. However, there is no parental leave for both parents and no paternity leave for fathers. A doctoral thesis analysing the emergence of a debate on parental leave and paternity leave in Switzerland showed that the current system was comparatively limited and gendered. In 2016, of the 35 OECD member countries, only Switzerland, Turkey and the United States did not have either parental leave or paternity leave policies.

In plain terms, this means that fathers in Switzerland are not guaranteed that they will be able to take time off work when they have a child, as their leave depends on company rules and collective labour agreements (CLA). Paternity leave can range from 1 or 2 paid days to up to a month in the most generous cases. And yet, since employers have no legal obligations, there are many fathers who do not have the right to take any leave at all. There is sometimes a possibility of requesting unpaid parental leave for several months but these measures only concern a minority of employees. In 2013, the Federal Council estimated that of the employees governed by a CLA (roughly half the working population), only 27% had access to a paternity leave of at least 1 paid day and/or an unpaid parental leave of a few months.

The potential of parental leave to promote equality

Thanks to research carried out in countries with many years of experience with leave policies, we know that these measures influence not only the daily lives of parents right after the birth of a child but also, more generally, parental norms and practices.

In terms of social norms, leave policies contribute to defining what the terms “good mother” and “good father” mean, and the legitimate amount of time that each parent should spend with the baby after its birth. Regarding parental practices, parental leaves have an influence over the division of labour in a couple. Maternity leave has had a positive effect on maintaining women on the labour market. When paternity or parental leave is taken by men, it is accompanied by a greater involvement in the child’s care and sometimes also in household chores. Later, they also devote comparatively less time to their jobs than do fathers who never took paternity or parental leave.

The duration of leave is an important factor: depending on the country studied, roughly 2 to 4 weeks of leave are necessary for a greater investment in family to be identified. The timing and context of leave up-take also play a role. Leave taken during the first days and weeks after the birth fills several functions, including making it possible to help the mother, to learn to care for the newborn and to feel competent. Leave taken alone with the child after the mother has returned to work makes it possible for the father to take full charge of the child and is most often associated, in the medium term, with a more egalitarian distribution of family and professional roles within the couple.

In short, parental leaves can help lay the foundations of a more egalitarian distribution of paid and unpaid work between fathers and mothers. There is however a fundamental condition for this: fathers must take advantage of these parental leaves!

The set-up of leave policies: the key to an egalitarian use

Leave systems in Europe vary greatly according to their duration (between 2 days and 9 weeks for paternity leave, and between 4 months and 3 years for parental leave), compensation levels (percentage of salary, flat-rate benefit or absence of compensation) and eligibility criteria (family entitlement to be shared, individual entitlement, quotas). Three observations can be made about their use: 1) when the leave is a family entitlement or when it can be transferred to the other parent, mothers use almost the entire leave period; 2) fathers only use the portion of the leave that is reserved for them; 3) when the leave (parental or paternity) is not associated with financial compensation, it is rarely used by the fathers or the mothers. Over the last few decades, many countries including Austria, France, Germany, Island, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden have reformed their leave systems to remedy this gendered use, by notably taking measures to individualize access to parental leave, render it non-transferable, introduce quotas reserved for fathers, extend paternity leave and introduce incentives such as financial bonuses.

With the introduction of these measures, and in particular the quotas, the proportion of men taking parental leave has seen a spectacular increase. The example of the 2001 reform of the parental leave system in Iceland is very instructive. When parental leave was a family entitlement with a 6-month duration and compensated with a fairly low flat-rate benefit, less than 1% of fathers took advantage of it. The proportion shot up to 82% when leave was increased to 9 months paid at 80% of the salary, of which 3 months were exclusively reserved for fathers.

Towards what leave system in Switzerland?

Since the introduction of paid maternity leave at the federal level in 2005, the absence of parental leave and paternity leave in Switzerland is increasingly a subject of discussion, as was observed in a study that analysed the emergence of these measures in the political sphere. From 1995 to 2014, 33 motions were submitted in favour of parental leave or paternity leave to the Federal Parliament, without managing to reach a majority.

The in-depth analysis of the set-up of the proposed leave policies aimed at determining their potential for increased levels of equality within Swiss families. Would the leave, as proposed in the parliamentary motion, encourage its use by fathers? Or on the contrary, would it reinforce a specialization of parental roles? The results show that only a small portion of the motions would promote equality in families by encouraging their use by fathers. The remainder of the proposals, however, would reinforce gendered parental roles, create new inequalities or simply rarely be used.

Among the few high-potential proposals for gender equality, there are leaves regulated at the federal level, reserved for fathers, well paid and with a duration varying from 1 to 2 months. Among the proposals that would reproduce gender inequality by encouraging leave use above all among mothers, there are proposals for paid parental leave to be shared. Economic factors, in particular, explain the gendered use of leave when it is a family entitlement: parental leave is rarely compensated at 100% of salary and benefits are generally capped. Given the salary gap between men and women, the financial loss for the household is much higher if the father takes the leave than if the mother does. Among the proposals that would create new inequalities, there are those in favour of private parental insurance, which is tax deductible and contracted on a voluntary basis. In addition to creating more gender inequality, this proposal would also create class inequalities since this model would only be accessible to families with middle and high incomes. Lastly, the proposals in favour of cantonal parental leave or leave intended for the public sector only would create new inequalities based on the location or sector of professional activity.

It is clearly apparent that leave policies are not always synonymous with greater equality between men and women and that it is necessary to closely examine how leaves are set-up in order to anticipate their possible effects. Among the motions that will soon be debated in Switzerland, there is a federal popular initiative in favour of paternity leave proposed by the association “Le congé paternité maintenant !” (Paternity leave now!). The motion is in favour of a paternity leave of minimum 4 weeks, paid at 80% of the salary and financed by the LECA system, as is maternity leave. From an equality standpoint, this initiative is a step in the right direction as it proposes a federal leave that is individual, non-transferable, well paid, relatively long, universal and financed collectively.

Isabel Valarino, Swiss National Science Foundation research fellow, invited at the Autonomous University of Madrid & University of Lausanne. E-mail: Isabel.Valarino@unil.ch

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This publication has received the support from the EU project Garcia.

Photo essay  ”Swedish Dads” by Johan Bävman ©

LIVES Impact (ISSN: 2297-6124) publishes regularly briefs with policy-relevant research findings from studies  conducted at the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES “Overcoming Vulnerability: Life-course perspectives” (NCCR LIVES). It is aimed at professionals, public officials and representatives active in social policy and related fields.

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