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Women and Work: Rethinking Parental Leave in Canada

03/08/2014 10:42 EST | Updated 05/08/2014 05:59 EDT

The other day a friend of mine asked me point blank: can you name any men you've worked with who've taken parental leave beyond a few days or weeks?

I wanted to scream "yes, of course!," so I quickly reviewed the new fathers I know. And then I reviewed that list again. I could only think of four men in an 18-year career.

Upon further reflection, I realized that I work in industries that aren't very family friendly -- media, tech startups and now politics. Odd hours and long days are the norm, as are contract jobs and no benefits. Recently, while working on a political campaign, I met with someone regarding a new project at 8 a.m., just before my 12-hour-day started. While thanking her for accommodating my schedule, she asked when I see my kids. I explained I didn't have any. She then asked me how the moms in politics do it. I answered honestly: I don't know how they do it.

I often ask the new moms in my circles how they do it, and they usually joke they hardly do it. Despite the many years of activism by feminists and the labour movement, most workplaces and government policies still haven't adequately addressed the reality that people need to work and take care of their children.

The last three years I've been part of a January term course on Persuasion at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a class on the science and art of effective influence for policy and leadership. I took the class as a mid-career student, and have had the incredible opportunity to return twice, now as part of the teaching team. In the class, Sheryl Sandberg's TED Talk on "leaning in" is used for a discussion on gender and persuasion.

It's my favourite part of the course. And each year, the same thing happens, from my perspective. It's a heated and sloppy conversation. In this very international class, there's a group that is dying to discuss the issue (predominantly women), a group that is unsure how to best discuss the issue (predominantly men), and a small group of students who relate it back to policy and systemic change -- it is a school of government after all.

Usually a student, male or female, from a Nordic country like Sweden will mention progressive parental leave policies. Even calling it parental leave is a shift, vs. the traditional maternity or mat leave. The few mothers in the class will point out, if we want to really address this issue, we have to begin where it starts. Parental leave and day care.

In Canada, we have 15 weeks maternity leave, followed by 35 weeks for either parent, covered by Employment Insurance. This looks great compared to the U.S. where it's a mere three months for each parent, unpaid but your job is protected. In Sweden, it's 480 days shared between the parents, with no more than 420 days taken by one parent and 80 per cent of wages are covered. Plus there's an incentive. Parents who split the leave 50/50 receive an "equality bonus."

Over in Norway, parents share 49 weeks, with 14 weeks reserved for each parent. Norway introduced shared parental leave in 1977, and in 1993 established their first quota for fathers. The "take it or leave it" approach, while paternalistic (how's that for a gendered term) has led to a cultural shift. Today more than 90 per cent of men in Norway take parental leave, reporting stronger relationships with their children, compared to just 2-3 per cent before the policy.

A recent, very revealing Harvard Business Review study found executives of both sexes consider the tension between work and family to be primarily a women's problem, and male execs admitted they don't prioritize their families enough. While the question of work/life balance is often reserved for mothers, men and same sex couples are also looking for opportunities and policies that support spending more time with their families without penalty or stigma in the workplace. Gloria Steinem summed it up well when she said "women are not going to be equal outside the home until men are equal in it." Better policies, at work and in government, can support families, which creates stronger and safer communities at large.

The official theme for International Women's Day 2014 is "equality for women is progress for all." Let's do exactly that by supporting progressive policies for women, and new opportunities for men and families.

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