16 Weeks Are Changing Spanish Society

Equity in parental leave is resulting in more men caring for their children.

A Sorli supermarket worker in one of its stores. / Photo: Xavier Jubierre

Read the article written by Ana Requena Aguilar for elDiario.es (Spain).

Published the 8th march 2023

On January 1, 2021, Spain became the first country in the world to give mothers and fathers the same parental leave: 16 weeks, non-transferable and fully paid. Two years after the implementation of a measure that many female experts consider key to advancing equality, official data and studies show that most men are taking their paternity leave, which could boost shared responsibility for childcare. However, they point out that there are differences: While women tend to take their leave all at once, men split it up in order not to spend so much time away from their jobs. Meanwhile, some companies are introducing pioneering measures to encourage their male employees to take care of their children.

Research conducted by economist Cristina Castellanos-Serrano describes the reform that has equated paternity and maternity leave as a success insofar as the majority of fathers use the entirety of their paternity leave. “This has not been achieved in any other country,” she says. Citing the conclusions of other studies, Castellanos-Serrano says that men take their leave “on a massive scale, regardless of their economic situation, social class, type of contract or educational level.”

Sociologist and member of the Platform for Equal and Non-transferable Birth and Adoption Leave (PPiiNA), Teresa Jurado also believes that there has been a “dramatic effect” that has triggered a cultural change. “Since the debate on the extension of parental leave was settled in 2007 and maternal and paternal leave were progressively equated, society has embraced the idea that men must take care of their babies. Men are participating more in child care, are participating more in childbirth classes and are attending their kids’ school events. That all seems normal to us now, but that is still not the case in other countries. Employers also accept that men are going to be absent, and that is a big change,” she says. Key to this evolution is the fact that employees receive 100 percent of their pay during paternity leave; studies have shown that men will take their paternity leave only if they are well paid. However, both Jurado and Castellanos-Serrano warn that it is too soon to see the impact of this change reflected in macroeconomic figures.

Of course, not everything is ideal. Statistics show that men and women continue to take their leave in different ways, and this has consequences. Women take it all at once, while men tend to split it up. And many heterosexual couples take their leave simultaneously. “Paternity leave gives men much more time with their babies, and that changes the care dynamics a lot. But these changes are even more pronounced when men take their leave consecutively with their partner rather than simultaneously. In those cases, both parents have the time to learn, to take full responsibility for the baby and to be able to take care of the child alone. This influences the dynamics that are established once the couple returns to work, because it makes both of them primary caregivers. The more the father takes care of his child, the less of an impact childcare has on the mother’s working environment,” says Castellanos-Serrano.

Paco Abril is a sociologist and researcher with a focus on gender and masculinity. He has been part of the Men In Care project which, among other things, has offered workshops and training to private companies and public institutions to generate more awareness regarding co-responsibility and to help change business and family dynamics. In these workshops, Abril talks to the participants “about how they have been socialized as men, what is meant by care, how the sharing of responsibilities works and so on. We try to bring their experiences into the workshop and to discuss these issues from there.”

The conversation then turns to companies, “to understand that the organizations also have a gender, which expresses itself  in the organization’s relationships, dynamics and culture.” Abril opens discussions on the cultural dynamics that prevent women from reaching positions of responsibility as well as the idea that people who occupy certain positions must always be available for work or meetings during off hours. The workshop ends with tips on how to help people and companies balance personal and professional lives. “The key point is not to turn it into an individual negotiation between the company and the worker but rather into a conversation about established rights.”

The Sorli supermarket group is among the companies that has offered the workshop to its employees. It was part of an overall effort to apply policies, such as flexible hours, equally to all employees. Of the 1,950 people who work in the group, 63 percent are women. “We have seen a change since 2020—maternity and paternity leaves are very balanced, men and women take them equally,” says Alba Martínez, director of the labor area of the human resources department. However, disparities still exist. For example, she says that 98 percent of requests for reduced working hours are granted to women. Regarding parental leave, they too have observed that women take it all at once whereas men spread it out over a longer period.

Both senior and intermediate personnel have participated in the workshop. “Working with new images of masculinity is part of our Equality Plan. The fact that the company dedicates resources to this type of training shows the workers that it is a very important issue,” says Ester Guillamet, an equality expert at Grupo Sorli. She believes that because of this, changes are taking place in the culture of the organization, such as improved communication, the breakdown of stereotypes and people increasingly benefiting from their right to work-life balance without feeling they will incur negative consequences. After the pandemic, the company conducted a survey to analyze the impact these initiatives had had on the way childcare time was organized. “It was a way to raise awareness and continue working on measures that promote co-responsibility.”

Workshops are not always easy. Abril admits that he has encountered resistance—at times quite a bit. “Some people stand up and say that there is no problem in their company. Meetings must be approached patiently, you have to provide evidence through data. But there are also very open-minded people, people who understand inequality and the need for change,” he says. The sociologist has also detected a generational change. “The younger generations of men have changed their thinking, their priorities; their career is very important, but they are  increasingly caring for their children. They want to be present for them.”

Juan García Caja, director of Sifu, an NGO that works to include people with disabilities in society and the labor market, attended one of the Men in Care workshops along with staff members. “We did it to see the power of this type of action and observe if it could help us promote equality, especially as regards men who take on domestic responsibilities,” he says. Caja felt that after the course, the staff had better assimilated the notion of equality. “They realize that we are not isolated, that the same problems that exist outside of organizations are recreated within them. And it is good that we improve internally as much as possible, because that will eventually have an impact on society.”

Sifu fits the pattern noted elsewhere: men and women have equal parental leave but men tend to split theirs into several periods while women take theirs all at once. The group has introduced yet another measure to help co-responsibility: All people who have children can benefit from reduced working hours during the child’s first year yet can maintain their salary. The objective is to disassociate the decision as to who stays at home with the baby after parental leave has ended from the couples’ paychecks.