Erika Oliva, left, and her husband Benjamin Lopez's family gather inside their apartment in the southern neighborhood of Vallecas, in Madrid, Spain, Oct. 15, 2020. 

Can Spain’s new paternity leave law address entrenched gender roles?

Starting this year, fathers in Spain have four months of federal mandated paid leave — the same amount of time mothers have had for years. While that puts Spain ahead of many European countries, some critics say the law won't do much to change gender norms and roles.

The World

Erika Oliva, left, and her husband Benjamin Lopez's family gather inside their apartment in the southern neighborhood of Vallecas, in Madrid, Oct. 15, 2020.

Bernat Armangue/AP

Every Friday, María Gallardo and Francesc Turmo pick up their three children from school together. They first head to one building to wait for 3-year-old Martí and 5-year-old Mia, who run to their parents with painted faces as soon as they spot them. 

Their third child, 7-year-old Alex, won’t get out of his Capoeira class for another couple of hours, so the family heads to a nearby Barcelona plaza, where dozens of children have thrown their backpacks aside and swarm the playground. A small group of children plays a game of soccer.

For Gallardo and Turmo, this Friday ritual is important. In fact, sharing child care duties has been a crucial part of becoming parents, which is why Turmo took as much paternity leave as he could for each child.

“I was able to have four months off with all of them,” Gallardo said. “But [Turmo] had two weeks off for the first child, three weeks off for the second child, and a month off for the youngest.”

Turmo added that fathers were granted one extra week of leave for each child they had. 

But now, that’s all changed. Starting this year, fathers have four months of federally mandated paid leave — the same amount of time mothers have had for years. It’s nontransferable, which means men have to use it themselves or risk losing the compensation — it's paid entirely by the Spanish government at 100% of their yearly salary. 

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In terms of paternity leave, that puts Spain ahead of many European countries, where even places like Sweden pay fathers only 80% of their salary for their leave and give them the option of transferring the allotted time to their partners. (Though, in all, parents in Sweden have 16 months of leave — double the amount in Spain.)

Turmo says this is an important step forward.

“I think it’s a good thing that men are able to stay with their child after the mom has returned to work. ...It’s good for the children, too, to have time with each parent.”

Francesc Turmo, father of three, Spain

“I think it’s a good thing that men are able to stay with their child after the mom has returned to work,” he said. “It’s good for the children, too, to have time with each parent.”

Turmo and Gallardo say many of their male friends are already taking advantage of longer paternity leave, which has increased progressively since 2017.

The paternity leave law in Spain is the result of over a decade of lobbying from the organization, Platform for Equal and Non-Transferable Birth and Adoption Leave. Spokesperson María Pazos says the idea was to push men to take a more active role in child care and ensure better work opportunities for women — since companies are less likely to discriminate against an employee's gender if every person is guaranteed the same amount of paid leave.

“When you give men paternity leave, and it’s well paid, they take it, and they get involved in child care,” Pazos said.

In 2018, the leftist party Unidas Podemos sponsored a bill based on the organization’s proposal, which was approved by the Spanish Parliament in early 2019. In a speech given just weeks before becoming a father himself, the leader of Unidas Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, says men need to step up their child care duties.

“We’re not here to help women raise our children, we’re here to split the responsibilities fifty-fifty."

Pablo Iglesias, leader, Unidas Podemas, a leftist political party

“We’re not here to help women raise our children, we’re here to split the responsibilities 50/50,” he said. 

But Pazos says the law isn’t exactly what the organization had proposed: nontransferable paid leave for men to take separately from their female partners. The law requires fathers to take the first six weeks in conjunction with the mother — and the last 10 weeks, which can be taken part time, to be arranged with their employers.

“It undermines the purpose of a paternity leave and ultimately pressures fathers to take their entire leave alongside the mothers, or to take it when it’s most convenient for their company."

María Pazos, spokesperson, Platform for Equal and Non-Transferable Birth and Adoption Leave

“It undermines the purpose of a paternity leave and ultimately pressures fathers to take their entire leave alongside the mothers, or to take it when it’s most convenient for their company,” Pazos said.

The idea behind a nontransferable leave is to ensure men take it, she says, because if it were transferable, they would likely hand it over to their female partners instead.

Related: In Spain after lockdown, soccer resumes for men — but not for women

But Gracia Trujillo, sociology professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, says only a small percentage of fathers actually take their paternity leave — and that’s unlikely to change with the new law.

“This law is being implemented in the name of equality, but the reality is that caretaker duties still aren’t equal.”

Gracia Trujillo, sociology professor, Complutense University of Madrid 

“Until now, men who wanted to take care of their children had the option of taking paternity leave or a leave of absence. So, if you really want to be involved in your child’s life, you don’t need the government to give you four months off,” she said. “This law is being implemented in the name of equality, but the reality is that caretaker duties still aren’t equal.”

Trujillo says that changing the law won’t change gender roles. Women continue to be the primary caretakers and are disproportionately affected by low-paid or precarious jobs, so Trujillo says they’re the ones who need more paid time off. Or it should at least be transferable, she adds, so that couples can decide for themselves how to best distribute the time.

Related: Centuries ago, Spanish writers challenged gender norms and barriers

And the law has other setbacks, Trujillo says. For example, it doesn’t keep in mind families outside the heteronormative framework. 

When Trujillo and her female partner had twin girls in 2017, Trujillo had to take a “paternity leave” because she wasn’t the biological mother — and it wasn’t possible for both mothers to take maternity leave. This also applied to gay fathers, who were able to access 16 weeks of paid leave before the paternity law was implemented by having one of them take a “maternity leave.” Legally, same-sex parents are now bureaucratically recognized, Trujillo says, but some government offices continue to have paperwork that only allows for one paternity leave and one maternity leave per child.

Vicent Borràs, a sociology professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, says that while the law protects every parent, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, it’s largely geared toward heterosexual couples. 

“There’s more inequality between heterosexual couples because of the history of gender roles between men and women."

Vincent Borràs, vice president, Families LGTBI

“There’s more inequality between heterosexual couples because of the history of gender roles between men and women,” said Borràs, who is also the vice president of the organization Families LGTBI

He says the law will not get rid of centuries’ worth of inequality between men and women in the household — but it’s a start.

“This law attempts to bring men into the world of child care,” Borràs said. “Because according to nearly every study, if the father is present in the first year of his child’s life, he’s likely to be present throughout the child’s entire life.”

Trujillo says that, in the end, the key to having a good parental leave is ensuring that the law centers around the well-being of those who need care — in this case, the child and the caretakers.

“This is one small part of a larger discussion about vulnerability, about caretaking duties and about who takes on those roles,” Trujillo said. “Historically, it’s been women, and it’s a job that hasn’t been valued, neither from a material nor from a cultural or social dimension. That needs to change radically.”