India must take a cue from Sweden if it is to make parenting equitable and improve its female labour force participation.
By Lekha S Chakraborty
If the fastest and smartest path towards economic growth is to increase female labour force participation, a policy that can bring radical change is “parental leave” for childcare. Making the eligibility for paid parental leave gender-neutral is an urgent reform—this way, the distorted argument that paid child-care for mothers leads to lower hiring of women can be addressed.
The most radical transformation in the institution of “motherhood”— to lessen marginalisation of women in job markets and stem the widening gender gap in earnings because of perceived productivity losses because of motherhood —is to integrate men in every aspect of childcare. This “equal sharing” policy would also provide recognition to energy, time and resources expended disproportionately by women in raising children.. The relevant policy question here is: What would provide an enabling environment to encourage “equal parenting” in childcare? The recognition that “shared parenting” leads to greater gender equality, and, in turn, economic growth, is the crucial step.
Scandinavian countries—that top the Human Development Index—have instituted “equal parental leave (EPL) rights” for men and women. For instance, in Sweden, the EPL system was introduced in 1974—both men and women were given an equal number of paid parental leaves, with the flexibility to swap the paid leaves between each other. Empirical evidence shows that more women than men had accessed this,, though parents were provided equal shares in paid leave.
In 1995, to encourage more men to take up paternal leave, Sweden implemented the “daddy-month” reform, which provided extra monetary incentives for men to take up parental leave, and with no flexibility of transfer of these paid daddy month to women. In 2002, Sweden announced a second “daddy month” where the paid leave for men was increased to two months. The total number of paid parental leave days was increased to 480 days. Empirical evidence shows that this enhanced paid paternal leave entitlement has had a significant effect towards men taking up child-care since 1995. This public policy has potential positive impacts in reducing the gender gap in earnings as gender differentials in the time spent on young children earlier had negatively impacted women’s earnings.
India has recently introduced two years’ childcare leave for “mothers” (after the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations) in addition to the “maternity leave benefits”. This is indeed a commendable achievement in integrating the “care economy” in macroeconomic policies. However, in the last mile, these paid leaves must be made gender-neutral by extending it to fathers along with mothers—a non-transferable leave, at least, for a specific period for fathers and the rest of the leaves with some flexibility on swapping between the parents . This will send the signal that our policies are not based on the restricted assumption that “childcare is the sole responsibility of the mother”. This, in turn, induces a positive impact on female labour force participation as the workplace cannot discriminate against or marginalise women by not promoting them citing childcare dynamics.
Making paid childcare policies gender-neutral is a long-term policy step to reduce gender differentials in labour force participation and the gap in wages. The sociology of fiscal policy is indeed the crucial point. If this potential policy measure of “equal sharing” in the care economy would induce intra-household tensions in negating the stereotype gender roles—the role of the father as a caregiver is in conflict with the patriarchal set-up—that needs to be dealt with by positive evidence. Awareness needs to be built on what “equal sharing” in the care economy can bring to people towards having quality relationships, and enabling both men and women to contribute equally to
Mandated parental leave, along with high-quality care economy policies and flexi-work time for men and women with young children, can ensure parents actively contribute to economic growth—a must for quality human capital formation, which, in turn, ensures intergenerational equity. This should be an additional fiscal entitlement along with the flexibility of reallocation of the existing paid childcare leave between fathers and mothers before the child turns eighteen years-old.
The view that “motherhood” is a hindrance for woman in efficiently contributing to economic growth just because of the traditional roles assigned to her needs course correction. The social content of this policy would be nothing less than a fitting response to futile questions like “can men mother?” or “what can a man do in the child care business”?