Experts have long argued that paid paternity leave has the potential to change societal expectations around parenting and help close the gender pay gap. New research from Washington University in St. Louis is among the first to provide concrete evidence that such policy reform can lead to more gender-equal attitudes — especially among those directly impacted by the policy, i.e., parents.
The research, published in American Political Science Review, measured the impact of a new parental leave policy in Estonia that extended fathers’ leave threefold for children born on or after July 1, 2020. The Estonian parental leave reform presented a unique opportunity to study the impact of paternity leave on gender attitudes because it did not include changes to any other entitlements, the authors said.
“Gender norms and biases are hard to overcome because they are so deeply ingrained in our society,” said Margit Tavits, the Dr. William Taussig Professor in Arts & Sciences at WashU and first author of the study. “Extending caregiver leave for fathers, however, has the power to decrease gender biases because it disrupts traditional gender roles and promotes less stereotypical ones.”
To study the impact of the new paternity leave reform, the research team conducted two surveys in Estonia in the months leading up to and following implementation. The first survey focused on new and expecting parents whose life choices — including time use and earnings — were directly affected by the reform. The second survey was conducted with a representative sample of the general public prior to implementation.
Both surveys sought to measure Estonians’ support for gender equality, as well as specific support for pro-female policies and interventions. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as “a preschool child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works” and “men make better political leaders than women do.” They were also asked if they would support pro-female policies to increase the representation of women in political leadership roles.
Results of the first study showed new and expecting parents who were eligible to benefit from the reform — meaning they had children on or after July 1, 2020 — were significantly more likely to express support for gender equality in the social and economic spheres than those who had children before the policy took effect. The difference was approximately 20% of a standard deviation. To put that in context, reform affects gender-equal attitudes as much as respondents’ gender, the authors said.
Parents who were eligible to benefit from the new reform were also significantly more supportive of women’s engagement in the traditionally male-dominated domain of politics.
“The rather large shift in gender-equal attitudes among those who were directly impacted by Estonia’s policy reform is notable, but not unrealistic for a real-world social policy intervention with significant implications for life choices, earnings and time use,” Tavits said.
Both fathers and mothers directly impacted by the reform experienced similar positive shifts in gender-equality views. However, striking differences arose when men and women were asked to support action to promote women at the expense of men. Women directly impacted by the reform were significantly more likely to support such policies, while researchers found no such increase in support for positive action by men.
Finally, the second survey found that informational, indirect exposure to the reform among the general public produced no attitudinal change.
“Taken together, our two studies, which contrast direct with indirect, informational exposure to the same policy change, demonstrate that informational exposure is clearly a less effective means for increasing attitudinal support for gender equality,” the authors wrote.
Sexist attitudes perpetuate inequality
Sexist attitudes are deeply ingrained in society. In fact, recent research conducted by Tavits traced gender norms and biases in Europe back dozens of generations to the Middle Ages. Attitudes matter because gender bias perpetuates socioeconomic inequality, Tavits said.
Our results show that direct exposure to progressive social policy can weaken sexist attitudes, providing governments with a practical and effective tool to reduce harmful biases.Margit Tavits
“Our results show that direct exposure to progressive social policy can weaken sexist attitudes, providing governments with a practical and effective tool to reduce harmful biases,” Tavits said.
Equality-enhancing reforms that grant parental leave to fathers are becoming increasingly common in developed societies. According to a 2023 report from the University of California, Los Angeles, 63% of countries worldwide provide paid leave for fathers. Notably absent from the list is the United States, which is also one of only a handful of countries globally to not offer paid maternity leave either.
According to Tavits, attitudinal support for gender equality in Estonia prior to the reform was close to the European Union average. Like many other democracies, Estonia offered generous maternity leave compared with scant leave for fathers. Estonia also offered additional shared parental leave that, in theory, either parent could take yet was typically taken by women.
“The former policies perpetuated the belief that women were the main caregivers of young children,” Tavits said. “By offering a benefit that can be accessed only through the choice of a nontraditional caring role by men, fathers’ leave directly challenges mothers and fathers to conceive of their social roles in less stereotypical ways. Casting men and women in roles that contradict stereotypically gendered expectations provides alternative social role associations for each group and promotes less unequal perceptions of the essential attributes of women and men.”
According to the authors, the implications of their findings extend beyond fathers’ leave.
“The intervention that we study amounts to a disruption of traditional gender roles. Its sizeable effect implies that other policy interventions that broaden gender roles may also move attitudes in a more gender-equitable direction,” the authors write.
Other contributing authors include Petra Schleiter, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Oxford; Jonathan Homola, an assistant professor of politics at Rice University; and Dalston Ward, an affiliated researcher at the Immigration Policy Lab at ETH Zurich and Stanford University.
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