Why Aren’t Men Taking Parental Leave?

Only 1% of UK fathers are taking up shared parental leave, one year after it was introduced, according to news reports this week. Parents get 50 weeks between them, to share however they see fit, but the take-up by dads has been abysmally low.

There are no similar statistics here in Ireland (as far as I could find) but anecdotally, it does seem that women use far more parental leave than men. Perhaps both parents are taking block leave from time to time, for example during summer holidays, but particularly when it comes to using one day per week in order to work reduced hours, it seems to be mostly mothers who do this. In the UK, one of the reasons given for the low take-up is because women don’t want to share – they want the full 50 weeks for themselves. Here in Ireland, that’s not relevant, because each parent gets a full and separate 18 weeks per child up the age of eight. So why are dads not using it? I’ve been wondering about it for a while.

why aren't men taking parental leave? Office Mum

It can’t be the fact that it’s unpaid – this is a problem for all of us, not just men. If women can take unpaid leave, then in theory, men can too.

It may be because it’s more acceptable to employers for women to ask for parental leave – in a kind of vicious circle way. More women work part-time, so it has been normalised to an extent. Fewer men do, making it more difficult for those who’d like to. And as long as that goes on, nothing will change. Of course, arguably, men could just take the career risk and ask for parental leave anyway – like women do every day of the week. But rightly or wrongly, I can see how it’s difficult to put your head above the parapet – to be that first man in the organisation who asks for a four-day week.

It may be because women get used to being at home with children while on maternity leave, and find the idea of being away from the kids for fifty hours a week difficult – zero to fifty is a huge overnight jump when maternity leave comes to an end. Men don’t have maternity leave – and for now they still don’t have paternity leave – so being at work full-time is just normal, and without the taster that is maternity leave, perhaps part-time isn’t something they desperately wish for?

Or it might simply be because men are traditionally seen as breadwinners, and by extension, full-time working breadwinners?

bread - office mum

My current working theory is that it’s because for women, working outside the home is still seen as a choice, whereas for men it’s seen as standard.

When I was going back to work after my second baby, to my full-time job, knowing the girls would be out of the house for eleven hours a day, five days a week, the guilt nearly tipped me over the edge. My husband was fine – working was normal for him, and for all of his friends, and for most of the men he’s ever known in his life.

But for me it was different. I knew I wanted to keep working, but I kept looking at friends who had gone to four- and three-day weeks, and wondering if I was doing the wrong thing by going back full-time. None of my friends were stay-at-home parents but of course, in the wider world, I knew people who were at home full-time, so that too was an option of sorts. Not in any real sense – it wasn’t financially possible for a start, and I also knew I wasn’t cut out for being at home all the time – but nevertheless, if some mothers were at home full-time looking after their children, it was enough to make me wonder if that’s what I should be doing too.

So was it that pull, that guilt, that worry, that caused me to ask for a four-day week a year later? Was it because I was looking at other women and wondering if I was getting it all wrong? Or was it what Aine Lawlor said at an event last year – she was talking about why there are fewer women in top jobs, and said:

“Women are more likely to step back and question if it’s really worth giving everything up, or if we should go and climb Everest.“

In this case, my Everest was every Friday off – and sometimes it really felt like climbing a mountain, but I don’t regret a thing. Maybe men just don’t know what they’re missing?


For tips on beating the fear when you’re going back to work after maternity leave, including expert advice from career coach Dearbhalla Baviera and wardrobe tips from Laura Nolan Horgan, have a look at Life After Maternity Leave 

maternity leave - office mum

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6 thoughts on “Why Aren’t Men Taking Parental Leave?”

  1. Great article. I know in my situation my husband earns at least double what i earn even if I were to go back to a full time capacity. Also, while he is a great father in that he plays with them and does fun things, he doesn’t cook or do housework. So if I did go back to work (am currently at home full time which I mostly love) I would come home to chaos and would be also working at home keeping the house in order. Now it could be argued that it’s my problem I do too much and he would need to learn etc etc but the current situation is what works best. I have a couple of friends, one who the husband is at home full time and another who took parental leave over the summer, both of these Dads are proper full on helping out with the house and kids type of guys. I think we are still very traditional and the mother is just expected to do the majority. Even if a mother goes off ofr a weekend, you hear the parents saying ‘wow fair play to him, he had them for the whole weekend, how did he get on?” They are his children!!! So as you say, as long as we continue nothing will change.

  2. Probably a combination of the lot; with the goalposts of employer culture and traditional domestic division of labour letting in too many own goals.

    My limited experience relates to my fella – his request for parental leave was rejected a few times on the grounds that the allocation within his department was already being used up by various female colleagues. So the employer needed adequate cover to maintain service, which is fair enough; but on closer scrunity it transpired those in receipt of parental leave had been for years – an arrangement that continued on. A plus in many ways, but it presented hurdles when it came to him hoping to get a turn. He was willing to back down, but then he had to listen to me (hehe) and they eventually came to an agreement for a short-term basis. He couldn’t afford it long-term. Will be interesting to see how it plays out in years to come. The cultural shift will likely take a generation.
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  3. I think the number of Dads taking parental leave will increase gradually over time, but I don’t think that there was ever going to be a mad rush for it, for all the reasons you’ve listed above. It will need a cultural change, but I believe that can happen, I see huge changes in the roles of Dads since I first saw with delight a Dad carrying his baby girl in a sling in the 1990s in a supermarket – it was so surprising that I can still remember his face! Then there was the one Dad at the school gate at DD1s primary school…. Both of those would be commonplace now, and I’m sure that paternity leave will be too in 10 years time.

  4. Could it be that men don’t want to be at home with the kids and doing the household chores one day a week? That being in the office with colleagues, coffee and the internet is preferable to changing nappies more often than absolutely necessary, making lunch for toddlers and dealing with tantrums?
    That might not fully account for the huge percentage of men not taking parental leave, but I bet it covers quite a few. I also bet that if men had the chance to take unpaid leave to pursue their hobbies or just do their own thing, many would.
    From my experience (albeit in Germany rather than Ireland), a lot of men are jealous of women’s day or two off per week and seem to think we spend our time drinking coffee with friends, going to the beautician and baking cakes. That we have the household to look after and kids in tow all the time while we are off is ignored.
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  5. Great piece. I think there are a lot of different things at play here- the family has gotten used to the mother being off and her salary being reduced due to maternity leave is one, who’s willing to take the leave is another, and the attitudes of many to men who take it yet another. I took one day a week for a while, and now I’m on a 4 day week contract. My husband works full time. Our earnings were roughly the same, but for us I wanted to cut back on work so it was me who did. It made our lives a lot easier.
    I do know a small number of men who have taken parental leave, mostly when kids are sick or in hospital, and a couple who take a regular day every week/month, they are very few and far between though I feel.
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  6. Interesting post. In Germany it’s quite commonplace for men to share the parental leave. I work in IT and there are several men in the office who took off 2-3 months parental leave and they all loved it! I also think it will be beneficial to women as employers won’t be as likely to worry that if they hire a female that they might go off on maternity leave since a man will be just as likely to do that so it evens up the playing field! My German husband actually loves the idea of us sharing parental leave down the line.
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