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ID Comment: True gender equality will not happen until men have equal paternity leave

It is no coincidence that countries that offer higher levels of paid paternity leave also have higher levels of gender equality

If the insurance industry is serious about gender equality it needs to recognise men and women should share equal responsibility at home and at work

Gender equality statistics are depressing whichever way you look at them. A 2020 study revealed just 6% of S&P 500 companies have a female chief executive. Put differently, that meant there were more male chief executives named John than there were women chief executives of any name.

The insurance industry is no stranger to this C-suite gender gap. In a survey taken this year for the industry’s Dive In Festival on diversity and inclusion, 70% of respondents reported having either no or fewer than 10% of women in executive positions at their organisations. 

Many reasons were given to explain the leadership disparity. Some respondents said women need to do a better job applying for senior roles, while others pointed to corporate cultures that favour “old boys’ networks” that exclude women from social situations where they can network.

One of the common barriers to equality respondents cited, however, did not involve women gaining equal rights to men, but men gaining equal rights to women. Specifically, respondents pointed to the lack of paternity leave as one of the biggest reasons why more women are not filling boardrooms.


Nordic models

A quick Google search for the best time in your career to have children brings up conflicting advice. Some articles say early 30s because you still have time play catch-up to reach upper management, others say late 30s because by then you have hopefully advanced enough in your career to become indispensable. Early 40s is OK but check your company’s healthcare policy to see if fertility treatments are covered.

What is interesting in the list of Google results is all of the advice is directed at women for the obvious reason that taking time out to raise children is still seen primarily as the mother’s responsibility.

This cultural assumption is measured in a country’s paid parental leave policy. England and France both offer 12 weeks of paid maternity leave and two weeks of paid paternity leave. Countries like Canada and Germany offer some form of parental leave for new fathers, but it could be at a fraction of his salary.

The countries with the most generous parental offers, however, are the ones that recognise both parents have a responsibility to raise their children. Sweden offers 480 days of shared parental leave, Iceland gives six months allotted to each parent and Norway provides 49 weeks of full pay to all mothers and 10 to all fathers. The 36-year-old female prime minister of Finland just signed a law saying the country’s 320 days of parental leave can be split between both parents.

It is no coincidence that countries that offer higher levels of paid paternity leave also have higher levels of gender equality. Men no longer have the added advantage of their employer assuming they will not leave for six months once they have a baby and both parents have an equal opportunity to bond with their newborn

The advantages of shared parental leave extend once parents head back to work and children to nursery. School nurses begin to call a sick child’s father as often as they do the mother. Instead of criticising the mother and congratulating a father for leaving the office on time to pick up children from football practice, both parents are equally expected to balance home and family life. “Having it all” is not just an aspiration for women. Men are also expected to figure out how to get dinner on the table by 7.30 pm.


Equality starts at home

Despite the clear advantages of offering paid paternity leave, many countries and companies are resistant to the idea. For reasons, look no further than the one developed country that offers no paid family leave of any kind: the US.

The Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington DC, argued against offering 12 weeks of paid parental leave because it would cost $450 a year in taxes for the average worker. Its study into the cost of Norwegian parental leave showed doubling it from 18 to 35 weeks cost tax-payers $24,022 per eligible birth.

What is implicit in this argument is that anything of value should only be measured in dollars and cents. It would be disingenuous to say offering equal paternity leave will not cost a lot of money – it most certainly will – but “growth” cannot be measured by profits alone. Real growth happens at home when families are given time to bond without the financial stress of wondering which parent is going to take a hit to their career to stay home with the baby. Balance sheets do not measure the losses that happen when women cannot contribute ideas because they have to take an additional six months of unpaid leave because it is cheaper than paying for infancy care. And no spread sheet can quantify the value created when an entire generation of little girls grow up seeing women take their deserved seats at boardroom tables.

If the insurance industry is indeed caught in the middle of a talent race to find the best and brightest, one of the most obvious ways to harness real growth is to cultivate the potential of every employee. This means recognising equality is not just about getting women in the boardroom. It is also about giving men more time to spend at home.

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