A breakthrough on parental leave: EU’s first steps towards gender equality

We are living in a dynamic historical moment, when new steps are taken every day to adapt to the fast changes in society, and when gender equality is one of the most discussed topics, not only among individuals, but also within companies.

Among other fields, many problems have arisen over the years due to the various disadvantages employed women face if they decide to have a child: the risk of being demoted from the initially held role to a lower level job; the risk of losing their job following the pregnancy leave, especially in case of fixed-term contracts or collaboration contracts; the difficulty in balancing work and private life. However, the need of a secure salary to cover the costs related to the child's maintenance, persists, and so does women’s ambition to keep improving their personal and professional career.

For years, some countries have already been on the path towards better reforms aimed to achieve a better work-life balance in the maternity period. Not only Scandinavian countries, where maternity leave can last up to 480 days, have done so, but also about our neighbours, the French, who enjoy several advantages, such as substantial state subsidies.

Why are governments mostly paying attention to the time mothers should dedicate to their newborns, without taking into account the time fathers (or the equivalent other parent) would like and could spend with them? In fact, also the other parent should have the right to take a temporary break from their job and to spend time with their baby. It is no coincidence that precisely the countries mentioned above are some of those which, in past years, have already begun to introduce the paternity leave too, while drawing up their national laws. Still, many countries, until few days ago, were lacking in such a reform.

It had soon become clear that, to keep up with social needs, a government involvement was necessary and that a uniform law was urgent. A great step forward was finally made on 4th April 2019, by the European Parliament in Brussels. The EU directive approved, with an overwhelming majority, a minimum requirement meant to achieve equality in treatment at work and job opportunities between men and women, to which member countries will have to adapt within 3 years.

More specifically, it first clarifies the distinction between “paternity leave”, which means leave from work for fathers in the occasion of the birth of a child, and “parental leave”, which is the leave from work for parents to take care of their child after the birth. Then, it lays down that the father has the right to a paternity leave of at least ten days (with flexible terms to be decided by Member States) and that each worker has an individual right to parental non-transferable paid leave of two months. Finally, each worker has the right to a carers’ leave of five working days per year, where “carer” refers to a worker providing care to a relative or to someone who lives in their same household and who needs support for medical reasons.

This is a great change for our country, which currently grants new fathers paternity leave for only 5 working days (plus one more optional in place of the mother). More generally, it is a great breakthrough also at European level, given that a minimum standard is now set for all countries.

The aims of this reform, and the benefits that it would bring to all the EU States, are many and closely interlinked. First, an effective parity of parents' roles within the family life and a better and more equal distribution of responsibilities. This will facilitate the role of the father in the care and growth of children, revolutionising the social stereotypes, according to which the woman should look after the child, or even be a housewife.

Moreover, the reform will make female employment easier and more flexible, allowing women to have better opportunities in the labor market while looking to become pregnant, during the pregnancy and after it. Consequently, the pension gap, now existing in various countries, including our own (in 2015, the gap in the EU was 38.3%), will decrease.

Finally, in a scenario where the population of various countries increasingly tends to aging, this reform could also favor a growth in the birth rate.

The new directive should lead to no longer considering "continuing to work" and "having a child" as mutually exclusive, but as a unique experience that embraces both events in a person's life. The goal, in short, is to make the birth of a child a simple and beautiful experience for the whole family, as it should always be.

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