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How does the U.S. compare to other countries on paid parental leave? Americans get 0 weeks. Estonians get more than 80.

Some studies show paid parental leave increases women's participation in the workforce and reduces gender pay gaps. Lena Mucha/The New York Times


The United States is one of the richest countries in the world – and yet one of only a few countries not to offer some form of paid family leave for new parents.

President Joe Biden campaigned on parental leave. But Democrats’ proposal to mandate paid leave federally has come into doubt as they spar with Republicans and members of their own caucus over a package to overhaul health care, education, immigration, climate and tax laws.

Paid parental leave is not especially controversial in much of the world.

Advocates of paid leave for new parents argue that it improves the well-being of both parents and babies, by enabling parents to take time off while ensuring some job and income protection. There is also an economic argument: Some studies show paid parental leave increases women’s participation in the workforce and reduces gender pay gaps. Supporters argue that such policies also recognize the work and economic contribution that parents make by caring for their children, as well as the time it takes to recover physically and emotionally after giving birth.

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Still, even in countries with comparatively robust paid leave, both mothers and fathers have described encountering discrimination when taking paid parental leave – and, more generally, primary caregivers can struggle to juggle both their careers and child care.

Here’s a look at how some countries handle paid parental leave.

United States – 0 weeks

The United States is the only wealthy country in the world without any guaranteed paid parental leave at the national level, based on data from the World Policy Analysis Center. Only a handful of other countries – all low or middle income – offer nothing.

While nine states and the District of Columbia mandate some degree of paid parental leave, federal law guarantees new parents just six weeks of unpaid time off, and not all workers qualify.

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Most Americans do not have access to paid family leave through their employer.

The Biden administration initially proposed mandating 12 weeks of paid parental leave nationwide – though some lawmakers have pushed to reduce it to four, if it passes at all. The Democratic proposal would also cover people whose full-time job is caregiving for a sick family member or a young child.

Britain – 39 weeks

In Britain, a working mother can take up to 52 weeks, a full year, of maternity leave. Thirty-nine of those weeks are paid, provided they meet the employment criteria. The time includes six weeks at 90% of their salary and the rest at a usually lower set rate, though the amount varies from employer to employer. One to two weeks of paid paternity leave is also available to fathers – including those adopting, the partner of a pregnant person and same-sex couples.

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The country allows new parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave, including splitting 37 of the 39 paid weeks between them.

Data suggests that few fathers or partners end up taking shared parental leave – with government estimates suggesting take up is between 2% and 8%. This is despite a “share the joy” publicity drive the government launched in 2018 to promote the policy, which activists said did not address structural issues that put a greater caregiving burden on women.

Sweden – 68 weeks

Sweden’s paid parental leave policies are part of “efforts to achieve gender equality,” according to the government agency Swedish Institute. In 1974, it became the first country to offer parental leave rather than a gender-specific policy for new mothers.

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Parents in Sweden are guaranteed 480 days of paid time off from work after a new birth or adoption. While a single parent gets 480 days, when there are two parents the days are split, amounting to 240 days, or about 34 weeks, each, the institute says, although the leave can be transferred between parents.

In 2016, Sweden introduced a policy – often referred to as “use it, or lose it” – that means each parent has 90 days of paid leave that is nontransferable to their partner. This is to encourage more men to take parental leave – and fathers in Sweden now take about 30% of all paid parental leave, according to the Swedish Institute.

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Estonia – 82 weeks or more

In Estonia, a new mother could receive more than a year and a half of paid leave, the highest in a grouping of 41 high- and middle-income countries, according to a 2019 report by the Pew Research Center. That includes 140 days with a full salary for mothers, and 435 more paid days that a couple can split.

Any parent – foster, adoptive or guardian – can claim this benefit, and it can extend until the child reaches three years old, with a guarantee of job protection. That means a caregiver can either stay home all in one go or do so intermittently along with stretches of returning to work.

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Benefits also include “a one-off payment at birth and additional support for families with more than three children, families with children with disabilities, and low-income families,” according to a 2020 report by Women’s Empowerment Principle, a community set up by the U.N.

Even in Estonia’s “generous system,” however, more than 90% of parents who took leave were mothers, an E.U. report said in 2017. That has prompted the country to add to its mix a further 30 days of paid paternal leave that would be lost if not used by the father – meaning parents could have a total of 86 weeks.

Japan – 52 weeks or more

In Japan, mothers and fathers are each entitled to up to a year of paid parental leave after the birth of a child. During this period, they receive a percentage of their usual income: 67% for the first six months and 50% during the second half. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one parent can take their leave up until the child is 14 months old, if both parents take some of the leave.

The Japanese government has been keen to encourage higher birthrates and higher participation of women in the workforce. But while the country has one of the most generous paid-leave policies for fathers in the world, few take it.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare reported in 2020 that only 12.65% of eligible fathers took advantage of paid leave, compared to 81.6% of mothers. A study that same year by the OECD reported an even lower participation rate of about 6%.

Experts point to work culture as one of the reasons to blame: Many men fear that taking parental leave could impact their career prospects. In 2020, a politician made headlines for taking two weeks of leave, spread out over three months, for the birth of his first child. The government is still trying to encourage more fathers to take leave, passing legislation earlier this year to make paternity leave more flexible and encouraging male civil servants to take at least a month.

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