For the UN to be and to remain a credible advocate for gender equality, as well as an inclusive and attractive employer, parental leave policies need to be standardized across the system. This would include an increase to a minimum of 24 weeks parental leave for all parents, irrespective of gender identity, how they became parents and contract type, and an additional coverage for the specific pre- and post-delivery needs of the birthing parent.
Leading the change
As an international standard-setting institution and a modern employer, the UN has a duty to lead by example through its policies and their implementation, as well as to inspire change globally. Accommodating the diverse needs of its diverse workforce is paramount to credibly advocating for sustainable development and social justice across the world. In recent years, the UN system has made significant strides towards the promotion of an inclusive work environment that both champions diversity and is free of any form of discrimination. But while parental leave policies are a key component of an enabling work environment, existing UN policies have yet to reflect these values.
Across the UN system, advocates have called for a standardized parental leave policy allowing all employees to actively care for their family, regardless of gender identity, how they became parents, sexual orientation, or contract modality. Among the most prominent supporters is the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, who has emphasized on multiple occasions that “Maternity, paternity, adoption and surrogacy leave policies should be replaced with one standardized parental leave policy of six months to promote equal caregiving,”(1) recognizing the UN’s responsibility to support the equal engagement of all parents.
A single parental leave policy of equal length – while ensuring adequate coverage of pre- and post-delivery of gestational parents, or specific needs emerging from adoption and surrogacy processes – is key to sustaining and building on the gains made thus far. Such a policy moves away from dominant gender norms viewing the mother as the primary caregiver, and eliminates discrimination against same-sex partners or non-biological parents. It normalizes equitable caregiving, supports all employees in balancing their professional and personal lives, and accelerates progress towards gender parity by flattening gendered discrepancies in career advancement.
The following elements are six out of the 15 recommendations crafted by “U.N. Parents Equal Rights Equal Roles”, addressed to the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC), the entity in charge of recommending principles to the General Assembly to determine our conditions of service as UN staff. Besides the ICSC, we call on heads of entities, chiefs of human resources sections, and policymakers in general to lead the change, to bear the flag of gender equality and equity by using their administrative power and delegation of authority to modify their internal policies, as well as to take the lead in improving their parental policies by adopting a comprehensive approach that considers major family milestones for birthing and non-birthing parents alike. U.N. Parents stands by you to help make this change happen.
Time dispensation for antenatal appointments, surrogacy and adoption formalities
There is a need to encourage both parents to participate in prenatal consultations and to promote a gender-neutral approach to antenatal and future caring for the child. U.N. Parents recommends that future parents be allowed time off to attend at least eight prenatal appointments, the minimum recommended by WHO (2). In addition, we propose the introduction of prenatal leave up to six weeks, separate from post-birth parental leave and any sick leave that may need to be taken during pregnancy. A similar entitlement of up to four weeks should be granted for pre-adoption/surrogacy. Member states like Canada and Kenya already have these provisions in place.
Allowing all parents to recover from miscarriage or stillbirth
The fact that miscarriage or stillbirth has a tragic impact on those who already prepared, both physically and mentally, to welcome a child, is undeniable. Such a loss needs to be recognized and sufficient time should be allowed to recover from it. U.N. Parents recommends that all UN employees who experience a miscarriage after 12 weeks of pregnancy be allowed to take at least 10 days of paid bereavement/special leave with full pay. In the case of a loss of the pregnancy after 20-28 weeks, we recommend eight weeks of bereavement leave. Lastly, expectant parents who experience a stillbirth after 28 weeks of pregnancy should be entitled to full parental leave to recover from their loss. These entitlements should apply equally to UN personnel expecting through adoption or surrogacy.
Access to 24 weeks of parental leave for all, staff and non-staff alike
Secretary-General António Guterres has on several occasions called for a standardized parental leave policy of six months. This is also outlined in the System-wide Strategy on Gender Parity (3), which recommends replacing maternity, paternity and adoption leave with one parental leave of an equal length for all parents, with additional coverage for the specific pre- and post-delivery needs of the birthing parent (4). We wholeheartedly support formalizing this recommendation and would add a six-week biological recovery entitlement for the birthing parent, in line with the Secretary-General’s Strategy on Gender Parity.
Combining entitlements for maternity, paternity, and adoption leave in one policy of equal length for all would also greatly benefit same-gender couples, adoptive or surrogate parents, and single parents, among others, who do not receive adequate benefits. To be truly inclusive, this policy should cover non-staff personnel, who despite representing a significant share of the UN workforce are left behind in parental leave and related benefits. The contractual precarity, especially that long-term consultants and contractors face, has immediate consequences on family planning and is counter to UN values.
Mandatory leave period of eight weeks for both parents to encourage participation of non-gestational parents
As outlined by Secretary-General António Guterres, a male-dominated culture and power structure also affects the UN (5), whose policies have hitherto discouraged and precluded the non-birthing parent from being fully involved in the pre- and post-natal support of the birthing parent and care for the child due to the perceived stigma of prioritizing their family over work. With a male-dominated management structure still in place, parental leave for both parents must become the norm and not the exception. As outlined by UNICEF, evidence shows that paternity leave “increases a father’s involvement, reduces gender inequality, and benefits both infant and maternal health.” (6)
Mandatory parental leave “would also help level the playing field for men and women both at home and work” and minimize the motherhood penalty, including neutralizing caregiving and reducing work (7) stigma around family commitments. U.N. Parents thus recommends a mandatory parental leave of at least eight weeks for both parents.
Caring for a sick or disabled child
Parents cannot function normally when their children are sick. Several UN agencies determine that to grant special dispensation (paid or unpaid leave) for taking care of a child with a serious disability, injury or illness, staff need to provide proof, such as a medical certificate or comprehensive medical reports, attesting to the child’s disability or illness. However, we know that the road to reaching a medical diagnosis is often time-consuming and emotionally draining. In such circumstances, U.N. Parents recommends that staff be given special dispensation, such as paid leave, to pursue the medical diagnosis of a dependent child.
Flexible working arrangements
Flexible working arrangements improve family and work balance. Working from home during the pandemic proved to be an invaluable lesson that presence in the office 9-6, five days a week does not equal maximum efficiency. Building on this lesson, U.N. Parents recommends that parents be granted the possibility of flexible working arrangements in favor of childcare and improved life-work balance. This would, in practical terms, provide parents with the possibility for compressed or reduced shifts, or the part-time transition to work after their parental leave, to be negotiated on an individual basis with the supervisor and chief of Human Resources.
We are aware that our proposed recommendations have financial implications, but continuing business as usual has a higher cost. This includes, but is not limited to, medical costs linked to pre- and postpartum/adoption/surrogacy stress and disorders, sick leave which could be avoided and lived otherwise, stress and conflict in the workplace, unpredictability of planning for supervisors and teams, loss of motivation and belief in the UN’s values, burnout, and consequently talent leaving the Organization and new talent not joining. In line with the Secretary-General’s “Our Common Agenda (8),” the ILO’s most recent “Care at work” report (9) outlines the importance to seriously invest into the care economy, without which no gender equality will be reached.
In order to live up to its own core values and ideals, a fundamental change in the culture of the Organization and its family policies is required. We therefore appeal to the ICSC to consider bearing the flag of gender equality by proposing recommendations to the member states in line with the demands of personnel, as formulated in this paper. Thus, the UN will in turn support states on their way to revising their own family policies and lead a global change for the best.
The full list of our recommendations is available at unparents.org. Join U.N. Parents today to enrich our collective thought process and to give and receive support from other parents working across duty stations and entities.
(1) See for instance the 2021 report of the Secretary General on the improvement of the status of Women in the United Nations System: https://undocs.org/en/A/76/115 or the 2019 report: https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3825109/files/A_74_220-EN.pdf
(4) System-wide Strategy on Gender Parity (p.35).
(6) Paid parental leave and family-friendly policies, An evidence brief, UNICEF (2019), p. 12
(9) Care at work: Investing in care leave and services for a more gender equal world of work Laura Addati, Umberto Cattaneo and Emanuela Pozzan Geneva: International Labour Office, 2022.