Any day now Steen Broust Nielsen, 36, is due to become a new father. Although the Denmark-based marketing director is looking forward to the new arrival, he will be taking his two weeks' paid paternity leave in a haphazard fashion. "We have an interim report coming up, so I can't possibly stay away too long," he says. Perhaps "half a day here and half a day there, when it's convenient."
Despite the fact that in addition to those two paid paternity weeks Danish law allows both parents to share 32 weeks' state benefit-supported leave during the first nine years of their child's life, men only account for 5% of all parental leave taken. And the story is similar throughout Europe. Continental governments may have put family-friendly policies in place, but it seems only a small minority of Europe's new dads feel they can afford to stay at home. Highly competitive workplaces, financial pressures and a tight job market have made many dads wary of taking advantage of legislation that guarantees them time with their children. In France, 59% of dads took the fortnight's paid paternity leave put in place by the government in 2002. But that still means more than 40% of dads are staying at work rather than staying home. In Sweden, where leave can in principle be divided equally between parents, fathers only account for 17% of parental leave taken. And in the Netherlands, where men can take up to 13 times their weekly hours before their child's eighth birthday, the number of men who made use of the leave fell slightly from 13% in 1998 to 12% in 2001.
Fathers say they would love to stay home for short periods if the realities of their jobs would let them. A 1999 study by the State Institute for Family Research in Bamberg, Germany, found that 20% of men would like to take parental leave. But state figures show that only 2% of German fathers actually do so. Dortmund-based management assistant Ansgar von der Osten, 38, declined to take his unpaid parental leave entitlement of up to three years after the birth of each of his two children because his wife was studying. He also declined to take advantage of the part-time working hours to which he was legally entitled. The potential disadvantages were too daunting. "A lot still needs to change in people's consciousness especially that of employers before men decide to stay at home with the kids," says Von der Osten. "When you're on your way up, you can't take a time out. That will set you back no end career-wise." The corporate world may be changing, but it's still a long way from family-friendly. And that hurts men as well as women.