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Researchers have identified a handful of factors that affect these rates. First, Queisser told me, many programs pay workers only a percentage of their income during their time off; naturally, the higher the percentage, the more likely fathers are to take leave. Second, she said, they’re also more likely to take time off if a program offers paternity leave specifically, as opposed to leave that’s given jointly to couples to be divided up at their discretion. (In those cases, women are more likely to take leave than men, generally because of cultural norms and because men’s earnings tend to make up a larger portion of a household’s income.)
Iceland is one country that illustrates these correlations. Queisser told me that, starting in the early 2000s, the country made its paternity leave “more generous—they increased the days, they increased the payment rates—and you could see as this went on that more and more men were actually taking this leave.” In 2016, nearly 30 percent of parental-leave days taken in Iceland were taken by men—the highest male share among OECD countries.
While this strategy may not have worked in Japan thus far, the case of Germany demonstrates how changes in policy can nudge culture forward. In the mid-2000s, Germany started giving a “father bonus”—two additional months of leave for parents to divvy up—to households in which the father took at least two months off; this helped increase dads’ participation rate.
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“I wouldn't say the Germans are comparable to Japan, but [they also have] large gender inequalities in the labor market, a very male-dominant earner model, and women stopping work or working only a few hours part-time once a child arrives,” Queisser said. “So the German policy has been very successful in [getting] fathers [to] take leave.”
It’s unclear where this interplay between policy and culture would leave America’s working fathers if the U.S. government were to start offering them paid leave. On one hand, Queisser said, “If American fathers would react like fathers elsewhere in the world to being offered leave with a generous income replacement, then you would expect them to use it a lot.” But on the other, she said, the precariousness of some Americans’ employment might limit participation: Workers without strong labor protections would probably hesitate to take leave if they thought that doing so might cost them their job, or hinder their prospects of a contract renewal. For now, in the absence of a universal government policy, these negotiations between rules and norms take place within the microcultures of individual American workplaces.
Changing policy, while not easy, is at least straightforward—it’s a matter of writing new laws. Changing culture, though, is a messier task, resistant to legislative decrees. That’s discouraging in the case of Japan’s work-first culture, but Queisser does see indications of changes to come around the world. “We can already see that younger generations place more importance on purpose and flexibility and work environment than just loyalty to the company and income and career progression," she said. As more people in those younger generations become parents—Shinjiro Koizumi among them—perhaps they will be the ones to push cultures toward equality.