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Cultural changes needed to make paternity leave mainstream

Cultural changes needed to make paternity leave mainstreamLeena Nair, chief human resources (HR) officer at Unilever / Image Credit: Zarina Fernandes,

When Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive officer, announced late last year that he would take a two-month paternity leave, he was met with plenty of praise.

More importantly, his decision shed light on the fact that many businesses have no paternity leave schemes in the first place offered for male employees — a fact that may be changing soon in countries like India and Ireland.

But according to Leena Nair, chief human resources (HR) officer at Unilever, the British-Dutch consumer goods company, the issue with paternity leave stems far deeper than the corporate level.

''Yes, companies like ours in many of the countries we operate in offer paternity leaves — maybe a week, two weeks, or three weeks — but not enough men take it. In the UK, for example, there's a one-year parental leave, but two per cent of men took it. Socially and culturally, it has to change because you can put programmes into place but cultures have to change and make it acceptable for men to be able to take this change,'' Nair told Gulf News in an interview.

She believes it's probably going to be ''decades away'' until paternity leave is just as commonplace as maternity leave from a social standpoint.

''I would say it's still a way off. Companies must create programmes but they must also work on how to change the mindset around taking that leave... Part of it is evolution of the society that we are in, so we have to change some of the cultural norms and expectations around what men and women are supposed to do and who the primary caregiver is — there are some cultural stereotypes around this and that has to change,'' Nair said.

In the UAE, Unilever started offering paternity leave this year for fathers-to-be, and though it was met with strong reception, not many men are opting to take it.

''Sometimes families will say, 'why are you taking time off? We're here to look after the children,' so you can't generalise for all cultures but even in most countries, not enough men are taking it...

But I'm coming from a place of optimism because in the last three or four years, I've seen the needle shift in so many parts of Unilever in so many challenging countries. I'm seeing more and more women in manufacturing, in supply chain, and in fields that aren't traditionally [female-dominated] so I'm optimistic that the time has come to create change,'' she said.

Equal pay

And it's not just leave schemes that need to be addressed to ensure gender parity.

Last week, Unilever announced it joined 29 companies in signing the White House Equal Pay Pledge in the US, and that it will conduct annual analysis into its hiring and promotion procedures to ensure equal pay for men and women of the same job.

Other companies that signed the pledge include Apple, Facebook, Target, Nike, Coca-Cola, Dropbox, Hilton, LinkedIn, and Microsoft, among others.

Nair said that though the challenges are huge, she hoped other governments around the world would take a similar pledge for equal pay.

''In most countries, governments and institutions are realising that talent is so scarce that we have to invest in women, so be it in Japan, the Middle East, or Pakistan, governments are increasingly speaking about having more women in the workforce...

I definitely see that the consciousness is up and the consciousness among people in power is up, so I'm optimistic that once we can find the right pragmatic solutions that make sense for each country, greater progress can be made,'' she said, adding that she expected to see more deliberate action to ensure gender-balanced work places.

Asked about hiring plans, Nair said Unilever hires around 7,000 to 10,000 new employees a year globally, with the figure unlikely to change as a result of the global economic slowdown.

Unilever currently employs a total of nearly 170,000 employees at its offices in many countries around the world — 4,500 of whom are employed in the Middle East and North Africa region.

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Source: Sarah Diaa, Staff Reporter, gulfnews.comGN