Parental Leave

Getting Started

For societies and economies to thrive, people require the ability to choose to be both workers and parents. Facilitating this choice means guaranteeing that the necessary support structures are in place through family-friendly policies that include parental leave. While maintaining their employment, this leave provides parents with time and, ideally, resources to dedicate to caring for their children around the time of their birth or adoption.


Beyond the benefits to individual women and families, parental leave yields benefits for employers and their businesses. Well-designed parental leave policies can also significantly accelerate economic growth by retaining women’s talents in the labour force and protecting maternal and newborn health.


Ensuring accessible parental leave requires strong legislation and effective implementation that is equitable and fair. This toolkit seeks to support parliamentarians in advancing both, with an underlying goal of contributing to greater gender equality in the world of work and society more broadly. 


By proceeding through the modules below, you will learn about:

  1. The different forms and components of parental leave legislation, and other critical considerations for developing effective legislative frameworks and protections;
  2. The benefits of parental leave legislation for society at large, families and women, and for the advancement of gender equality; 
  3. Good practices to follow when enacting and implementing parental leave legislation; and
  4. International frameworks and tools to support national action on parental leave, including an overview of parental leave legislation in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Getting Started

For societies and economies to thrive, people require the ability to choose to be both workers and parents. Facilitating this choice means guaranteeing that the necessary support structures are in place through family-friendly policies that include parental leave. While maintaining their employment, this leave provides parents with time and, ideally, resources to dedicate to caring for their children around the time of their birth or adoption.


Beyond the benefits to individual women and families, parental leave yields benefits for employers and their businesses. Well-designed parental leave policies can also significantly accelerate economic growth by retaining women’s talents in the labour force and protecting maternal and newborn health.


Ensuring accessible parental leave requires strong legislation and effective implementation that is equitable and fair. This toolkit seeks to support parliamentarians in advancing both, with an underlying goal of contributing to greater gender equality in the world of work and society more broadly. 


By proceeding through the modules below, you will learn about:

  1. The different forms and components of parental leave legislation, and other critical considerations for developing effective legislative frameworks and protections;
  2. The benefits of parental leave legislation for society at large, families and women, and for the advancement of gender equality; 
  3. Good practices to follow when enacting and implementing parental leave legislation; and
  4. International frameworks and tools to support national action on parental leave, including an overview of parental leave legislation in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Did You Know?

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Maternity Protection Convention (Convention 183) in 2000, which is the most up-to-date international labour standard on maternity protection. It includes recommendations on the minimum length and types of maternity benefits and protection measures. 

Parental leave is sometimes used as an umbrella term to describe the combination of maternity, paternity, and/or parental leaves. From a policy perspective, these subjects can be differentiated as follows:


Maternity leave: A job-protected rest period, usually paid, that is provided to mothers towards the end of their pregnancy and continuing immediately after they give birth. Maternity leave is generally provided to biological mothers, including surrogates, as a health measure. It is also provided to adoptive mothers in many countries. Maternity leave can sometimes be transferred to other caregivers (e.g. in the case of the mother’s death). It is also sometimes obligatory for a minimum of six weeks.

34 out of 35 countries in the region have maternity leave


Paternity leave: Job-protected leave that is often limited to biological fathers at the time of the birth of their child and immediately afterwards. It is a care measure that allows fathers to better meet the needs of their infant (and any older children) and to assist the infant’s mother in recovery from childbirth and in establishing feeding and other routines. Same-sex partners of birth mothers are increasingly eligible for this entitlement. 

21 out of 35 countries in the region have paternity leave


Parental leave: A period of longer, job-protected leave available to either or both parents to allow them to care for their infant after maternity or paternity leave expires. Parental leave is considered a care measure.

7 out of 35 countries in the region have a form of parental leave


There has been a gradual extension of maternity leave in the Americas and Caribbean region, primarily motivated by women’s and infant health concerns. Paternity and other family-friendly policies are scarce but show great promise as mechanisms to promote gender equality, women’s rights, and sustainable development. 

Globally, expanded gender-neutral parental leave is increasingly prevalent, and there is a corresponding shift away from maternity and paternity leave. This forms part of a new approach favouring gender-neutral or undifferentiated policies related to care and work-life balance.

Some of the most persistent gender inequalities are related to the burden of unpaid care work on women, which often translates into job insecurity and fewer opportunities for personal and professional advancement. Parental leave can be a critical measure for advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment at work and in the home. 


Protected, paid leave enables women to maintain a greater degree of financial independence with continued earnings to support themselves and their families. It also increases the likelihood that they will remain in the labour market. Furthermore, paternity and parental leave promote involved fatherhood, which can be transformational during the early months of children’s lives and send a message that no parent should be singularly responsible for care work.


The benefits of parental leaves for gender equality include:

 

  • Improves women’s health by allowing for physical and mental recovery from the physiological changes associated with childbearing and childbirth.  The postpartum period can be characterized by medical challenges for women such as pain, lactation issues, depression, infections, and stress. Designated leave for women after they give birth also facilitates exclusive breastfeeding, a recommendation of the World Health Organization (source). 
  • Prevents maternity discrimination through protection measures. Women may be considered less desirable hires if they have family responsibilities, and women of childbearing age can be treated as a liability because of the perception that their potential care responsibilities will in future impair their dedication or availability at work. 
  • Alleviates financial strains. Without strong guarantees and provisions associated with paid parental leave, many families face a choice of economic hardship or returning to work prematurely. Parents are therefore likely to resume work as soon as possible for financial reasons – which, especially for mothers, can harm their health and wellbeing and that of their infant. It also helps prevent career setbacks women face after having children, known as the “mom penalty.”
  • Involves dads in the process. The lack of sufficient parental leave reinforces gender norms and double standards that have different impacts on women and men in heterosexual relationships. Gender stereotypes can stifle men who feel confined to the traditional role of provider yet sincerely wish to spend time with their children. It can also help to foster co-parenting and deconstruct harmful gender norms at the household level by promoting shared childrearing and household responsibilities
  • Invests in future generations. When they are supported by leave, parents can better meet their infant’s nutrition, early stimulation, and other healthcare needs – including immunization – which helps to prevent costly health risks in the future (source). Parental leave is even linked to infant survival; evidence from countries at all income levels shows that longer periods of maternity leave reduce infant mortality rates (source). 

In recent years, positive shifts have occurred in the legal and policy landscape of parental leave: away from exclusively providing maternity leave, in favor of providing shared parental leave; and away from individual notions of childcare responsibility, towards models of co-responsibility. In this evolving landscape, a careful mix of policies that are responsive to local socio-legal contexts can help to produce a strong system that allows women and men to succeed in their work and personal lives.


The following are relevant considerations for designing or assessing regulatory frameworks in the area of parental leave.

  • Adoption leave: In a number of countries, adoptive parents are granted the right to parental leave (if it exists), but they should also be entitled to maternity and paternity leave or to a special leave period with provisions specifically for adoption. Adoptive parents in a same-sex partnership or who are single must also be eligible for an equitable guarantee of leave.
  • Benefits payment: Some countries pay 100% of the worker’s previous earnings up to a ceiling; others have no cap; others provide lump-sum payments. To be in conformity with ILO Convention 183, the cash benefits during maternity leave must be at least two-thirds of the worker’s previous salary, or a comparable amount.
  • Compulsory leave: In some countries, there is a compulsory leave period for mothers immediately following childbirth – usually of six weeks. This is intended to prevent employers from rushing women back to work before they have recovered from delivery.
  • Co-responsibility: A policy framework that stresses shared contributions and provisions for childcare by the State, families, businesses, and/or communities – the latter group including trade unions, civil society organizations, international organizations, informal networks, and the non-profit sector. Parental co-responsibility is a term to describe measures aimed at promoting men’s increased participation in childrearing and family tasks (i.e., co-parenting).
  • Eligibility requirements: While they vary based on the financing scheme used to fund the program, requirements generally include working a certain amount of time for the same employer and payments to a social security plan. Removing these types of eligibility requirements will create greater equity for parents in the workforce and will in general positively benefit low-income workers.
  • Extensions: most countries provide for a few weeks’ extension to maternity leave in the case of complications arising from pregnancy or delivery, and if the child is born with a disability or requires hospital care for an extended period of time. Many countries also extend maternity leave allowance in the case of multiple births (twins, triplets, etc.).
  • Length of leave: The general consensus in the international practitioner community is that a minimum of six months of paid maternity leave is desirable. When maternity leave is too short, mothers may not feel ready to return to work and end up dropping out of the paid labour force. It is also recommended that governments and businesses provide at least nine months of combined parental leaves (maternity, paternity, shared), which would equate to at least three months of parental leave (beyond the six months for maternity leave) that can be shared between the two parents.
  • Protective measures: Women and men must be guaranteed the right to return to work in the same or an equivalent position, and to be paid no less than what they earned prior to their leave. In cases where a worker brings a claim forward after being dismissed or demoted as a result of pregnancy or parental status, the burden of proof should be on the employer to prove otherwise.

Make parental leave universal and publicly-funded, with the same or an equivalent job guaranteed upon return to work.

Even in countries with legal rights to parental leave, not all workers will have access to this leave. Given the high rate of informal and precarious employment in the region, and the higher likelihood of women to have intermittent work histories and/or to be employed part-time to balance care responsibilities, many do not meet the qualifying condition. 

Publicly funded mechanisms (i.e., non-contributory models financed by general taxation) are the most inclusive option for financing parental leave. When employers are responsible for all or part of benefit payments, there is a significant risk of discrimination against women. This discrimination can be subtle or even unconscious on the part of the employer due to ingrained gender norms, but it can ultimately result in increased reluctance to hire or promote women. 

All leave policies should also guarantee job protection. In some countries in the Americas and the Caribbean, the dismissal of pregnant workers or workers on maternity leave is not prohibited by law. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for women to be terminated from their job for reasons that are directly or indirectly related to maternity. In companies, this is often disguised as “restructuring.” Women must have dependable protections and recourse against this violation of their labour rights.

 

Incentivize fathers to take their maximum allowance of paternity and/or parental leave.

As a first step, it is crucial to reform the regulatory frameworks on parental leave to enable men to use these benefits. For example, ensuring job protection for men on leave removes a potential financial risk that may have prevented a father from taking leave if their salary was higher than their partner’s. 

Data from countries that have implemented paid, non-transferable leave (“use it or lose it”) for fathers demonstrates that this incentive structure stimulates a higher take-up rate. Non-transferable leave has the longest history in Scandinavian countries, and take-up rates grew exponentially after it was put into effect.

Promote conditions that make breastfeeding a viable option for workers for as long as they choose.

If conditions are supportive, breastfeeding is compatible with full-time employment, and it can increase the rates of exclusive breastfeeding among those who choose and are able to do so. For breastfeeding mothers, policies that guarantee paid breastfeeding breaks throughout the day can make the transition back to work less challenging after parental leave and enable continued breastfeeding to remain a true choice. The policies should be backed by strong legislation and education for employers and all employees, which will promote greater cultural acceptance of breastfeeding.


Use language that is inclusive of all gender identities and experiences of parenthood.

Families and their experiences of parenthood are diverse, and legislation should reflect inclusion of LGBTQI people in order to uphold the rights of this community and the principles of non-discrimination. Careful attention to terminology, not only in legal frameworks but also in daily speech, can help to transform attitudes and promote inclusion.

Consider making leave policies gender-neutral but with adequate provisions for the birthing parent who requires unique protections in relation to their working lives, including additional leave before and immediately following delivery. Gender-neutral leave policies work from an understanding that all workers may have reproductive and caregiving responsibilities, not only biological mothers.


Lead by example, showing that parliaments are workplaces and that parliamentarians are also parents.

Parliamentarians can play a powerful role by modeling good practices. In addition, individual actions, especially by high-profile figures, can help to reshape cultural expectations around parenting and work-life balance. In their offices, parliamentarians can champion work-life balance for staffers, whether or not they have children. In addition, just as it is important to ensure there is no bias against employees who are parents, childfree employees should not face pressure to take on additional projects or work longer hours than their peers with childcare responsibilities. 
 

In Numbers

Number of countries in the Americas and the Caribbean where maternity or parental leave benefits are 100% paid by the government

Number of countries in the Americas and Caribbean that meet the minimum number of weeks (14) for maternity leave recommended by the International Labour Organization

$12 Trillion USD is the estimated amount added to the global economy by 2025 if women’s equal participation in the workforce is achieved

  1. Source: “National Frameworks,” Parental Leave Publication, ParlAmericas, 2020.

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  2. Countries: Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, El Salvador, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Venezuela

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  3. Source: McKinsey Global Institute, The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth, 2015.

    Source

Good Practices

The good practices that follow have been shared by parliamentarians and other stakeholders. They describe techniques for engaging men in gender equality initiatives.

 

Check yourself

Revisit the key information in this toolkit with a short quiz. These questions are intended for personal knowledge review and responses are anonymous.