Since 2020, partners have been entitled to apply for five weeks’ parental leave. Before that, paid paternity leave was only two days. Family sociologist Renske Keizer (Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences) had long been advocating for the paternity leave scheme to be expanded. Her research showed that such an expansion could combat inequality in a variety of ways. In 2016, Lodewijk Asscher, then Minister of Social Affairs, invited Keizer to provide input into the legislative proposal.
You are a professor of Family Sociology at EUR. What exactly does that entail and what does your research focus on?
“My research lies at the interface between family sociology and inequality sociology, also known as stratification sociology. I look at the role families play in perpetuating, increasing or reducing inequality. There’s a common expression in Dutch: ‘He who is born for a dime, will never be worth a quarter’. I want to expose the underlying mechanisms; what happens in families that means inequality is perpetuated, and what role does government policy play?”
Parental leave legislation
Since 1 January 2019, partners are entitled to parental leave equivalent to the number of hours they work in a single week (the leave must be taken within four weeks after the birth, and they receive their full pay). Since 1 July 2020, partners can also take up to five weeks’ additional parental leave. During the period of leave, instead of receiving their salary, the partner receives a payment from the Employee Insurance Agency (UWV) (seventy per cent of their daily pay). They must take the additional parental leave within six months after the child’s birth, and they must take the one-week parental leave first.
Why is it so important to you to research this area?
“Because social inequality between children is growing almost everywhere in the world, including in western countries. We know that differences in parenting behaviour perpetuate this inequality, but we still know very little about why that is. In our research, we’re trying to expose the underlying mechanisms and consider the differences in parenting behaviour between parents. One way we research this is by observing households and looking at parent-child interactions, but our research group also looks at the impact of policy on how families function, and the inequality at a macro level.”
For one study, you followed a hundred families over an extended period of time. What did that reveal?
“We didn’t see many differences in the quality of parenting between fathers and mothers based on social class. However, we did see differences based on social class for fathers, more so than for mothers, in terms of the extent to which they were involved in their children’s upbringing. So the study showed the importance of remembering that fathers are childrearers too, and that in terms of involvement in childrearing, there is a lot to be gained from reducing differences based on social class.”
Hence your call for more generous paternity leave?
“When I started my research into fatherhood, fathers were entitled to only two days of paid leave. One day to attend the birth and one day to register the birth with the authorities. That created barriers to involvement in childrearing right from the start of the child’s life. It meant that if fathers wanted to be more involved, not only did they have to arrange that themselves, but more importantly, they had to pay for it themselves. Not everyone could afford to do that, so we were increasing the inequality not only between men and women, but also between families with more and with fewer financial resources.”
In 2016, you were invited by Lodewijk Asscher, the Minister of Social Affairs at the time, to talk about paternity leave. How did that meeting come about?
“At the time, paternity leave was a hot topic in society. I was the first person in the world to hold a chair specifically relating to fatherhood (at the UvA), and I was giving interviews about fatherhood and paternity leave in the Netherlands, including an extended interview with the newspaper Het Parool, based on academic insights and my own research. Asscher read that interview and invited me to come and talk to him about my research. He told me he’d been thinking about the miserly paternity leave entitlement and asked about the policy implications of my research. He showed a lot of interest and had clearly done his homework.”
So your views were widely adopted, and were incorporated into a new legislative proposal. What do you think made your message resonate?
“I think momentum was building, because there was a lot of public debate about paternity leave. I’ve always believed it’s important for my findings to not remain in the lab. But I soon realised there was a need to translate recent academic insights into policy implications. Academic jargon often doesn’t resonate. On the RTL Late Night talk show, I said that in terms of paternity leave, the Netherlands was the least generous country in Europe, and that our entitlements were on a par with those offered by Rwanda and Pakistan. That message was heard loud and clear. The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), one of the parties in the government coalition, was reluctant to expand paternity leave. But when you explain that research shows mothers earn seven per cent more for each additional month of paternity leave, even a party like the VVD can sell that to their base.”
The expansion of paternity leave has been achieved. Do you think that’s enough?
“It’s an important step, but I think it’s a real shame that the paternity leave payment is only seventy per cent of the father’s income. I advocated for one hundred per cent of income, up to a certain income threshold. Otherwise, for a family earning the minimum wage, it’s not always feasible to take the leave. Incidentally, I wasn’t arguing that all fathers should take leave. I simply didn’t want policy measures to be implemented that would increase inequality. So there’s still room for improvement.”