By Gary Barker, Mary Robbins
December 22, 2014

Rodrigo Neves wasn’t expecting a fight. After the city council of Niteroi, Brazil passed a new law earlier this month extending Brazil’s nationally mandated 5 days of paid paternity leave to 30 days paid leave for city employees who become fathers, Neves, the city’s mayor, vowed to overturn it. He didn’t expect to be bombarded by news outlets and a local campaign demanding that the law remain in place. The story even made it onto BBC.

“How do we deal with the shortage of teachers, street cleaners with an absence for that long?” Neves said. “I‘m the father of three children and I don’t think it’s necessary or essential to have 30 days of paternity leave.”

Currently, Brazil offers only five days paid paternity leave, compared to four months fully paid maternity leave (the United States, of course, offers none). And yet, many government officials at the local and federal level in Brazil (and in other countries) take Neves’ side: They believe allowing 30 days of paternity leave will disrupt worker productivity and the functioning of cities and countries. They’re wrong. In fact, the opposite is true.

Experiences from as far north as Sweden and as far east as Japan show that policies promoting fathers’ involvement at home is good for the economy, for gender equality, and for families. And it’s good for men, too. A litany of studies demonstrate the positive effects of active fatherhood on men’s own health and well-being, their relationships with their partners, and on the social, emotional, physical and cognitive development of their children. Research shows that when men are more involved in the early care of a child, they are more likely to remain connected to that child and to carry out a more equitable amount of the care work.

And that has big economic implications. If men share half the care work at home through the help of policies like extended, paid paternity leave, women’s participation in the paid labor force increases. Numerous studies have found the economic benefit of maternity leave; the evidence is also mounting about leave for fathers.

Consider this: the Organisation of Economic Coordination and Development reports that if women in the U.S. worked at the same rates men did, U.S. GDP could grow 9 percent; France’s by more than 11 percent; and Italy’s would see a 23 percent climb. On average, across OECD countries, if women’s participation in the workplace were to converge with men’s rates by 2030, we could see an overall increase of 12 percent in GDP. This data comes in addition to recent policy recommendations from the ILO, the IMF and the World Bank all pointing to paternity leave and men taking on an equitable share of the care work as being essential components in promoting women’s participation in the workplace – and in boosting the economy overall.

This would be especially welcome in Brazil, where, after a decade of meteoric economic progress, economic growth has now slowed with a mere 0.3 percent projected growth for 2014, the lowest in 5 years. Over the last two decades women’s labor market participation has increased to 60 percent in Brazil. Paternity leave could boost that even more.

Brazil’s fight for gender equality could also use a boost. Brazil fell nine country rankings since last year in the latest Global Gender Gap Index report, putting it behind Cuba and Mozambique. Not surprisingly, Iceland, Sweden and Norway–all of which offer paid paternity and maternity leave—rank first, third and fourth, respectively, in the report. They represent convincing examples that father-friendly policies contribute to women’s economic empowerment – and to a country’s economic stability and growth.

To be sure, creating these policies is only half the battle. The next question becomes: If we offer leave, will men take it? Studies find that many men, particularly those in the private sector, worry about their job stability if they take extended leave to care for a child. One key strategy to convince men to take leave is that it be paid and that at least part of it is non-transferable from the mother to the father. Another key lesson learned from places like Iceland, Sweden and Norway – countries that pioneered paid paternity leave more than 20 years ago– is that employers, particularly in the private sector, must encourage men to take leave and assure them that their career trajectories will not suffer if they do.

For example, Sweden’s famous “daddy leave” promotes parental involvement by compensating mothers and fathers at 90 percent of their wages while offering subsidies that ensure fathers take at least one month off (and making a portion of parental leave designated only for the father). Today, 9 out of 10 fathers in Sweden take paternity leave averaging more than 6 weeks. One result: a study in Sweden found that women’s income increases 7 percent for each month that her partner takes leave.

Beyond countries, corporations are also catching on. One Brazilian company is leading by example in extending paid paternity leave from the currently mandated 5 days to 30 days. Ernst and Young, which offers paid leave for mothers and limited paid leave for fathers, has found that such policies pay off in terms of worker satisfaction and retention, for both fathers and mothers.

Despite these bright spots, here’s our current reality: globally, the trend is that men work more paid hours when they have a child and women work less. Furthermore, after the birth of a first child women are more likely to return to the work force in a part-time position than men are. The result: men’s incomes increase, women’s remain lower and many women remain outside the formal labor market. The other result: we continue to see caregiving as women’s work, while men are seen, at best, as “helpers.”

Paid paternity leave breaks this destructive trend. It is key to shifting traditional gender expectations and achieving full equality for women. And it could also be key to shaking up stagnant economies.

Almost 1,000 people have signed a petition to tell Niteroi’s Mayor Neves to give fathers leave. Now it’s time for other politicians and policymakers, in Brazil and elsewhere, to listen to citizens and consider paid paternity leave. It’s not a question of whether it’s “necessary and essential,” to use the words of Neves. It’s simply a smart and just policy all around.

Gary Barker, Ph.D., is founder and International Director of Promundo, an international organization with offices in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Washington, DC, and Kigali, Rwanda, that works to engage men and boys in gender equality and ending violence against women. Mary Robbins is a Program Officer at Promundo, an NGO that works internationally to engage men and boys in promoting gender equality and end violence against women. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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