Parental leave as a tool for gender equality

Gerardo Meil, chair professor of Sociology
Jesús Rogero-García, lecturer in Sociology
Pedro Romero-Balsas, lecturer in Sociology,
Autonomous University of Madrid

The most recent parental leave policies have extended childcare rights to fathers, promoting greater gender equality and less discrimination towards maternity. In Spain, there is a large difference in the use made by men and women of the different types of leave. This use depends, largely, on job stability and on whether the leave is paid or not. Males who take paternity leave tend to devote more time to caring for their children (especially if they take leave after their partner has returned to paid employment), which means that parental leave is a tool that contributes to greater gender equality. 

1. Introduction

The birth of a child usually brings with it immense joy and also, a new scenario which requires adaptation by the whole family. From one day to the next, the parents have to tackle their baby’s all-consuming care needs, inevitably requiring them to reduce the time they previously devoted to other activities.

Within a context of increasing numbers of dual-income families, with the employment rate among mothers with children aged under 3 years growing from 45% in 2000 to 63% in 2015, harmonising child-rearing and paid employment is a challenge of the highest order. Faced with Spanish society’s demands to tackle this challenge, the public authorities have developed a variety of initiatives, with two goals: firstly, promoting adequate reconciliation between family life and working life; and secondly, achieving effective equality between men and women in relation to childcare.

The aim of this study is to describe the use of parental leave in Spain based on the Survey on the social use of parental leave 2012). This survey is the most recent designed specifically for the analysis of this social issue. (Graph 1)

The study and the survey have been funded by the Ministry of the Economy and Competitiveness, projects CSO2009-11328 and CSO 2013-44097-R.

2. Parental leave for reconciling family life and work: where we stand

In its origins, parental leave for childcare was only designed for mothers, the aim being to facilitate their physical recovery following birth and preserve the baby’s health. Over time, and with the aim of eliminating maternity discrimination and promoting greater involvement of fathers in childcare, this right was extended to men.

The pioneers in these policies were the Scandinavian countries, which observed that merely extending the right to parental leave to fathers did not result in their greater use of it. Therefore the countries decided to introduce more effective incentives. They set up the “father’s quota”: a period of leave with a high substitution salary that is non-transferrable to the mother and entitlement to which is lost if it is not used (Duvander and Johansson, 2012). The result was that the involvement of fathers in their children’s care grew exponentially. Today, growing numbers of countries are recognising men’s right to be involved in childcare and creating specific schemes such as paternity leave (Meil, 2013).

In Spain, the extension to men of paternity leave entitlements has been very gradual, despite the different reforms being linked to policies promoting gender equality. Firstly, entitlement to leave and reduced working hours (both without pay) was extended to both sexes as a family right, i.e., exclusively for one of the two parents (Escobedo et al, 2012). Subsequently it became conceived as an individual right, while the possibility of using breastfeeding leave was extended to men, as well as part of the maternity leave entitlement if ceded by the mother. 

Growing numbers of countries are recognising men’s right to paternity leave to care for their children.

Until a decade ago, the philosophy underpinning this evolution was to extend to men the right to use the different types of leave envisaged for mothers, but not to promote their use through positive incentives. It was only following the 2007 Law for effective equality between men and women and through the creation of paternity leave, that the promotion of men’s involvement in childcare was explicitly pursued (Escot and Fernández-Cornejo, 2012).

Overall, the Spanish system of parental leave for childcare is characterised by a high degree of legal protection against dismissal, a high degree of flexibility in usage possibilities, sound financial protection during the first weeks of the baby’s life through well paid leave entitlements, but low compensation for any leave of longer duration. The basic characteristics of these leave schemes are contained in the following table:


Main characteristics of parental leave for childcare in Spain

  • Maternity leave 

16 weeks paid at 100% of the base salary in cases of biological maternity, adoption or fostering, providing that the individual is registered with the Social Security authority or equivalent and has paid contributions for a minimum period of time. When the required lower limits for contributions are unmet, the entitlement is reduced to 6 weeks of non-contributory benefits.

The first six weeks following birth are compulsory and the rest may be transferred to the father, or be used part-time. In cases of same-sex partners, as well as adoption, the parents must inform the Social Security authorities which partner is going to make use of the maternity leave and which of the paternity leave entitlement

  • Breastfeeding leave

Once the maternity leave period has concluded, both parents are entitled to breastfeeding leave (although only one of them can use the entitlement), consisting of two half-hours or one whole hour of reduced working hours per day without any proportional reduction in wages, until the baby’s ninth month. Through collective agreements or by agreement with the employer, this entitlement can be added to the maternity leave entitlement, typically resulting in an additional 2 weeks of leave.

  • Paternity leave

Four consecutive weeks (from 2017; previously it was two weeks) from the birth, fostering or adoption of a child, paid at 100% of the regulatory base, providing that the parent is registered with the Social Security authority or equivalent and has paid contributions for a minimum of 180 days. 

  • Unpaid parental leave

The entitlement of all workers to suspension of their employment contract without pay, until the child reaches the age of 3 years, with safeguarding of the individual’s post for the first year and of a post in a similar category if the duration is longer. Can be used in fractions.

  • Reduction in working hours for childcare

Entitlement of all workers to a reduction of between a minimum of ? and a maximum of ½ of the working day, with a proportional reduction in salary, until the child reaches the age of 12 years. Use can be fractioned.

  • Other entitlements related to childcare

Entitlement to leave due to risk during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Right to a reduction in working hours for minors affected by cancer or other serious illness, with compensatory benefit for the corresponding reduction in salary.

3. Unequal use by men and women

Today, the majority of Spanish fathers and mothers make use of parental leave to care for their children during their first months of life. As in other European countries, entitlements that compensate all or part of the salary while being used (paternity and maternity leave) are used by the great majority of workers, while those that are unpaid (extended leave and reduced working hours) are used by a minority (Graph 2). 

Among women, the use of parental leave has increased in a sustained manner during recent decades, while for men, the introduction of paternity leave in 2007 represented a de facto turning point. Prior to 2007, the only way that fathers could enjoy paid leave was if their partner ceded part of their maternity leave. This happened in approximately 7% of cases. Since its launch and to date, paternity leave has meant that 3 out of 4 fathers have been able to enjoy at least two weeks to look after their babies. This clearly substantial change is evidence of how relevant the design of leave entitlements is in progressing towards co-responsibility for men and women in childcare (Romero-Balsas, 2015).

Women use leave entitlements more often and for longer periods than men.

In all types of parental leave the percentage of use is higher among women, who also use significantly longer leave entitlements. The gap between women and men is especially large in extended leave and reduced working hours, i.e. when there is no pay; in these cases, women multiply men’s rates of use tenfold (graph 2). It seems evident, therefore, that paid leave schemes designed exclusively for men promote their use, whereas when there is no substitution salary, men’s participation is drastically reduced.

4. Employment precarity: the main barrier to the use of parental leave entitlements

The employment statusof the parents is a determining factor in Spanish families’ childcare strategies (Lapuerta et al., 2011). In particular, job instability reduces the probability of using entitlements to leave, paid and non-paid alike (Graph 3). 

When women are in permanent employment, resorting to unpaid leave or reduced working hours to reconcile family life and working life is 4.4 times more likely than when they are in temporary employment or self-employed; men in permanent employment have a 2.9 times greater likelihood of using parental leave entitlements. Furthermore, it has been observed that working in the public sector promotes the use of non-paid leave entitlements among men (Meil et al., 2017).

From these different usage patterns, it is deduced that temporary workers are aware of the existence of possible penalisations of a labour-related nature, such as non-renewal of their contract following the leave or the loss of possibilities for stabilisation or promotion. 

Entitlements are used more when the leave is well paid and when parents are in stable employment.

In the case of the self-employed, the risk of losing customers, together with the loss of income due to the opportunity cost of the entitlement, leads to very few reducing or temporarily suppressing their working activity. Thus, preserving the job and the employment status of both partners is a fundamental factor when considering whether to use parental leave entitlement or opt for other childcare strategies.

The use of parental leave entitlements is also linked to the education level of parents (Graph 4). 

The greatest differences between those with high and low levels of education are related to unpaid leave. Parents with high levels of education usually achieve stable positions with better salaries, which mean it is easier for them to bear the opportunity costs represented by taking unpaid leave, whether full-time or part-time. Moreover, these parents usually have more information and knowledge regarding the existence of these resources and how to request them.

5. Influence of the use of parental leave entitlements on men’s dedication to childcare

The paternity leave entitlement appears to achieve the aim of contributing towards greater involvement of fathers in their children’s care, as those who have taken advantage of parental leave devote more time to their care (Graph 5). However, the degree of involvement varies depending on the type of leave taken.

Men who make use of their paternity leave entitlement devote, on average, 28 minutes per day more to the care of their children than those who have not used it. In turn, those who have used part of a maternity leave entitlement (up to 10 weeks) devote on average 1 hour and 12 minutes more. In both cases, this involvement contrasts with that of men who use only the paternity leave entitlement. Thus, the use of longer leave allowances appears to be more effective in involving men in childcare.

The use of reduced working hours by men, while not completely interrupting their employment, leads to an increase in men’s involvement in childcare. Specifically, men who have taken advantage of a reduction in working hours devote an average of 54 minutes more than those who have not used any entitlement. In turn, the use of unpaid leave appears to favour the greatest involvement of men in childcare: on average, those who used it spent more than 2 hours per day more caring for children than those who did not use entitlements. 


Use of paternity leave by men promotes continued involvement in caring for their children after the leave has concluded.

While paternity leave, with few exceptions, is used when mothers with jobs are on maternity leave, the other types of leave are used when the mother has returned to work, which implies that the father is caring for the baby without the mother’s presence. The use of “home alone” parental leave by men is related with a greater degree of involvement in childcare tasks in the long term (O’Brien and Wall, 2016). In the case of Spain, this is confirmed by the higher involvement of those who have used the maternity leave entitlement on a home alone basis. Furthermore, men’s involvement not only promotes gender equality in household tasks (Meil, 2013; Escot and Fernández Cornejo, 2012; Romero-Balsas, 2015), but also the development of deeper bonds between fathers and children (O’Brien and Wall, 2016), as they themselves recognise:

 “That whole month with her…, playing, brings you much closer to her. It made us much closer and now we are inseparable, my daughter was very close to me. (…) The bond with my son was not the same because we did not spend so much time quietly playing, taking walks and so on.” (interview with a 32-year-old father on “home alone” paternity leave).

6. Conclusions

After nearly a decade since its introduction, paternity leave can be considered a success, since the majority of fathers have used their entitlement in its totality. In turn, and although their use is minority, the opening up to men of leave entitlements initially designed for women has also meant an advance in co-responsibility in childcare tasks.

In well-paid parental leave entitlements there are no major differences between the genders, and improvements in legislation have led to higher usage rates. However, the use of unpaid leave is minority and biased according to gender and employment status. This is due, fundamentally, to the absence of remuneration. In this sense, growing employment precarity represents an obstacle to all workers exercising the right to use parental leave in order to care for their children.

Moreover, empirical evidence confirms that the use of leave entitlements by men increases their involvement in the care of their child, showing that parental leave can be an effective tool for pursuing gender equality. In this respect, the extension of paternity leave to four weeks in 2017 is very positive but insufficient, because it offers no incentive for its use once the mother has returned to work and because four weeks is insufficient time to achieve more effective socialisation in the care of the baby.


Gerardo Meil, chair professor of Sociology

Jesús Rogero-García, lecturer in Sociology

Pedro Romero-Balsas, lecturer in Sociology, 

Autonomous University of Madrid

7. References

Duvander, A.-Z., and M. Johansson (2012): “What are the effects of reforms promoting fathers’ parental leave use?”, Journal of European Social Policy, 22(3).

Escobedo, A., L. Flaquer and L. Navarro (2012): “The social politics of fatherhood in Spain and France: a comparative analysis of parental leave and shared residence”, Ethnologie française, 42(1).

Escot, L., and J.A. Fernández-Cornejo (eds.) (2012): Una evaluación de la introducción del permiso de paternidad de 13 días. ¿Ha fomentado una mayor corresponsabilidad en el ámbito del cuidado de los hijos pequeños?, Madrid: Instituto de la Mujer.

Lapuerta, I., P. Baizán and M.J. González (2011): «Individual and institutional constrains: an analysis of parental leave use and duration in Spain», Population Research and Policy Review, 30(2).

Meil, G. (2013): «European men’s use of parental leave and their involvement in child care and housework», Journal of Comparative Family Studies, XLIV(5).

Meil, G., P. Romero-Balsas and J. Rogero-García (2017): «Why parents take unpaid parental leave. Evidence from Spain», in V. ?esnuiytè, D. Lück and E. D. Widmer (eds.): Family continuity and change. Contemporary European perspectives, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

O’Brien, M., and K. Wall (eds.) (2016): Comparative perspectives on work-life balance and gender equality. Fathers on leave alone, New York: Springer.

Romero-Balsas, P. (2015): «Consecuencias del permiso de paternidad en el reparto de tareas y cuidados en la pareja», Revista Española de Investigaciones Sociológicas, 149.




Gerardo Meil, chair professor of Sociology
Jesús Rogero-García, lecturer in Sociology
Pedro Romero-Balsas, lecturer in Sociology,
Autonomous University of Madrid



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