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This policy is the key to getting dads to do their share of the housework

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In trying to have it all, working moms often confront a big problem: doing it all. Even when both parents in a family work full-time, working moms often end up doing more housework than working dads. But a new working paper may have found a way to make that housework more equal: when men are offered their own parental leave, they do more housework, while their wives do more work at the office.

Cornell University Ph.D. candidate Ankita Patnaik studied a "daddy-only" parental leave program that Quebec instituted in 2006, finding that it both greatly increased the rates at which fathers took leave and made housework more gender-equal...and, counterintuitively, meant mothers spent more time with the kids.

What was studied

Patnaik studied Quebec's Parental Insurance Program (QPIP), which the province instituted when it left Canada's national employment insurance program. What made the QPIP program unique was that it was a "daddy-only" program — that is, it expressly reserved some parental leave for fathers. Prior to QPIP, Quebecers had a set amount of shared leave for a family, and either parent could use it. Under that program, families essentially left benefits unclaimed, as they didn't want to forgo income. QPIP helped lessen that burden, because it paid out higher benefits than the national program.

The introduction of Quebec's program created a unique scenario in which to study how people react to new, men-only parental leave — Patnaik was able to use other provinces as "control" groups and compared them to Quebec.

What was found

Fathers' leave from work grew tremendously after the program was in place — their participation in parental leave picked up by 250 percent after QPIP was instituted, and the length of their leave increased by 150 percent. That's despite the fact that men had had leave at their disposal before — when offered their own specific daddy-only leave (albeit with better monetary benefits), men took it up more. They also reported spending more time at home and with their family members.

Moms, meanwhile, worked more and earned more money when exposed to the program. Mothers' incomes grew significantly — by more than 5,000 Canadian dollars, in part due to more hours worked and more full-time employment. Changes in men's incomes were not statistically significant.

The new policy also changed patterns of behavior at home, making housework less sex-specialized. The dads started not only spending more time with families but taking on household tasks like grocery shopping that had mostly been the province of women. Meanwhile, women cut back on housework. However, interestingly, women more than made up for their lower levels of housework by doing more childcare.

What it means

The study's results suggest that fathers responded not only to the increased benefits under Quebec's new program but also to the very fact that the program set aside hours specifically for fathers, Patnaik writes. That suggests something important: that simply offering shared parental leave may not inspire fathers to take leave, but setting aside leave specifically for dads does get them to take it, shifting the total amount of leave-taking more toward men. This sort of program, by setting time aside for men, may reduce the stigma of taking leave to spend time with the family.

And if parental leave for dads improves moms' labor market outcomes, it could mean that this kind of parental leave policy would make the labor market simply work better. Working mothers are as capable of workers as working fathers but nevertheless tend to work less and disproportionately do more housework. When those women "lean out," to borrow a phrase from Sheryl Sandberg, it means the workforce as a whole misses out on their full talent and potential...and it can set those women up for a lifetime of lower earnings.

men women housework

It's true that women ended up doing more "unpaid work" at home after this policy was put in place in the sense that they ended up doing more childcare, but this may depend on your definition of "work" — it may be that those moms prefer childcare to housework, and this new policy may have freed them up to spend time with their kids. Moreover, this study suggests that daddy-only leave creates a "win-win" scenario, as Patnaik puts it: it improves gender equality at work without sacrificing parents' time with their kids.

One caveat, however: as with any working paper, this is a preliminary study, and it has not been peer-reviewed.