East Versus West: How Countries Fare On Parental Leave Across The World

  • Neha Bagaria - Founder & CEO, JobsForHer
  • in
  • Back to Work, Founder's Blog
  • |
  • 14 Nov 2017


Maternity leave is a basic labour right accorded by the International Labour Organisation, stipulating a minimum of 14 weeks maternity leave through the Maternity Protection Convention, 2000. About 53% (98) of countries meet this minimum requirement.

There is also an increasing need to focus on parental leave, where the burden of child care is shared between mothers and fathers. Companies and countries that recognise the benefits of parental leave over maternity leave are far ahead of the curve, and set an inspiring example. We explore some in this article.

European Utopia

The world could learn a thing or two from Europe, where many countries offer an extra cushion of time to both parents, as their child grows. Many EU countries have taken the initiative, recognising that such benefits for employees affect overall quality of life and work. Countries that have made both paternity and maternity leave mandatory in some form, are not biased towards women because the economic cost of parenting is distributed equally between both parents - not just the mother. The implementation of such policies is changing the discourse and social norms around caring for children, by providing incentives for fathers to take paternity leave.

Sweden, for example, lets each parent take 8.5 weeks and then split an additional 52 weeks between them. Working parents are paid about 78% of their earnings for the first 56 weeks. Timewise, France and Germany are the most generous, offering three years, although most of it isn't paid. In France, employees earn on average roughly 600 euros a month for six months of parental leave. In Germany, a family is paid 67% of earnings for 12 months. Austria allows up to 104 weeks off and has five compensation options to choose from.

Career Break A Setback, A U.K. Study Finds

While the U.K. offers up to 52 weeks, or a whole year as Statutory Maternity Leave, not all of it is paid leave. Statutory Maternity Pay is paid for up to 39 weeks, and does not mean employees get paid in full for the entire duration of leave. Companies in the U.K. are obligated to welcome the employee back to her original job after her maternity leave, ensuring that the employee has a job to return to.

A recent report from the parliamentary group on women and work says that many women in the U.K. fear returning to work after a career break, because they believe that the gap in their CVs alienates employers. While more companies in recent years have put in place returnship programmes, many women “cited the cost of childcare and the lack of a clear way back as key obstacles to returning to work”.

The report calls on companies in the U.K. to use the opportunity to grow their talent pipelines, particularly at mid and senior levels, with this talent pool of women returnees.

North America

The United States, in comparison, doesn’t fare so well. How much leave parents get is entirely up to the employer. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) applies to only 59% of workers - meaning, nearly half the working population is not entitled to any kind of parental leave, paid or unpaid.

Only three states in the US - New Jersey, Rhode Island and California - have social insurance programmes through which paid family leave is funded through payroll taxes, thus easing the financial burden of parental leave from companies. European countries that have good parental leave policies in place, also have strong social security programmes that budget for paid parental leave for employees. This plays a big role in creating an enabling environment for employees who become parents, particularly in the case of small and medium size companies that are still growing. Tax or public money paying for a social and societal benefit like parental leave, goes a long way in supporting smaller businesses that need to grow their bottom line and reduce overheads.

For a country that prides itself on being the leader of the free world, the U.S. has an “embarrassingly sparse” maternity leave policy, comparative to countries like Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and Liberia.

Canada, on the other hand, mandates maternity leave with benefits, the latter being administered by provincial employment insurance plans. Depending on the length of employment history and the hours worked, new mothers can take between 17 and 52 weeks of leave from their jobs. Their employers are required to accept the employees back into their jobs, or the equivalent, at the end of the mandated leave at the same rate of pay with the same employment benefits.

On top of mandating maternity leave, the government offers paid leave for one or both parents through Canada's employment insurance plan. A pregnant employee or new mother can take a paid maternity leave of up to 15 weeks. Either the mother or father can take 35 weeks of parental leave after the baby is born or adopted. The parents can share the leave however they choose. If eligible for the program, the benefits equal 55% of the parent's average weekly insurable wage, up to a maximum of $485 per week. For low-income families, the rate of benefits can increase to up to 80%, with the same maximum of $485 per week. Employment insurance benefits are taxable in the same way as wages.

The bottom line is that the US has one of the worst support systems for pregnant women and new mothers in the world. It’s neighbour to the north, Canada, has a much stronger policy and framework in place, where essentially mothers get at least some income for a year into having a baby, and a guaranteed position back at work after such a lengthy leave. 

This Side Of The Pond: Where Does India Stand?

The National Sample Survey reports says that, in 2009-10, out of every 1,000 females (all ages) in India’s rural areas, 347 were attending to domestic duties. In the case of urban females, this number was even bigger: 465 per 1000. Compare this to the number of rural and urban men who were attending to domestic duties: only 5 per 1,000 and 4 per 1,000 respectively.

And there’s more. In India, out of 100 college graduates, 40 of them are women today. Out of those 40 women, only 8 pursue a career. And out of those 8, 4 drop out in 3 years.

That’s an astounding 50% of all working women in India, that stop working within 3 years, amounting to approximately 1.5 million Indian women who are going on a career-break every year.

Indian Companies Already Seeing the Light

Corporate India has done quite a lot on this front, to encourage more women to come back to work.

Airtel announced in March last year, much before the bill to extend maternity leave was even tabled, that maternity leave was being extended for female employees to 22 weeks. The company also extends 12 weeks of maternity leave for adoption of a child younger than 2 years, and 6 weeks for adoption of a child older than two.

Flipkart leads the way among the e-commerce retailers, offering 24 weeks and encouraging female employees to avail of fully paid flexible working hours for up to 4 months after they return to work. The e-commerce giant also offers women the option of taking a one year break without pay.

Microsoft India also offers 6 months of maternity leave, and is one of the few Indian companies to offer two weeks paternity leave to new fathers. The company also offers women employees the option of availing unpaid leave for up to three months and flexible work arrangements for up to two years, as well 8 weeks leave for adoption.

Other companies in India walking the talk are Nestle, HCL Technologies, Godrej and Hindustan Unilever, all of which offer 24 weeks of maternity leave.

All of these are big companies that can afford to absorb the human resource cost of paying women for maternity leave. As we’ve already pointed out, first of all there is a need to expand the focus from mothers and maternity leave to parents and families.

There’s also a dire need to shift the financial burden of parental leave from companies to social welfare, so that smaller businesses can also offer employees parental leave.

In Conclusion

While one would think that the West fares better on such parameters, the U.S. is proof that this isn’t necessarily the case. Indian companies and the government fare pretty well in comparison, but still have a long way to go. And parental leave benefits in India are quite different for blue collar and white collar jobs too. The unorganised labour force tends to be covered by welfare schemes from the government, while white collar workers depend on the organisations that they work for and the policies the respective organisation decides to implement.

Family-friendly work policies benefit the nation as a whole. They are no longer “women’s issues”.

It’s only right then, that the government also steps in and allocates money to shoulder the human resource cost of retaining parents, particularly for SMEs.

We at JobsForHer call on corporate India to join hands with us in our mission to bring more Indian women back to work. We also hope that the government takes a page out of the books of other countries’ family-friendly policies, highlighted in this article.

Is your company ready to diversify? Then look no further! Sign your company up on JobsForHer TODAY and gain access to this incredible talent pool of experienced and qualified women, available at no notice period! AND write to to learn how we can work with your company end to end, showcasing you as a company that women returnees should want to work for.


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