Almost no men used to take South Korea’s generous paternity leave. That’s changing

More time with the baby.
More time with the baby.
Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-ji
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More Korean dads—a lot more—are now making use of their generous paternity leave.

In the first half of 2018, more than 8,000 men in South Korea went on paternity leave, according to government figures released this week, accounting for 17% of all people who took parental leave. That’s a 66% increase from the same period last year, and an exponential increase from 2010, when just over 800 fathers went on leave.

It isn’t that parental-leave policies in Korea aren’t generous. Along with Japan—another country where men are extremely unlikely to take time off after having a baby—men in both countries are entitled to 52 weeks of paid leave. Many men cite pressure from their employers and fears of being disadvantaged in their workplaces after taking leave as reasons for not taking advantage of the policy. A report released today (July 25) compiled by the ministry of welfare found that more than 60% of Korean working parents felt uneasy asking for parental leave from their companies, fearing potential consequences including demotions.

The government said that expanded financial support for new fathers and support for smaller companies to allow them to let their employees take parental leave, contributed to the rise in men taking time off. A recently announced slew of government incentives includes extending from one year to two years the period during which men are guaranteed 80% of their normal wages, capped monthly at 1.5 million won ($1,332). The effect of the government initiatives is especially pronounced at smaller firms—the latest figures for 2018 show a 94% on-year increase in men who work at companies with 100 to 300 employees taking paternity leave.

Some private companies are also stepping up to boost incentives for new dads to take parental leave. Lotte Group, one of Korea’s biggest conglomerates, made parental leave mandatory in 2016 and guarantees 100% of employees’ salaries for a month.

Korea’s emphasis on getting more men to take paternity leave comes as its government frets over the country’s sharply plummeting fertility rate, with many people citing reasons such as financial instability and a reluctance to conform to traditional gender roles as reasons for not having children, or forgoing marriage altogether. South Korea’s fertility rate hit an all-time low last year.