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August 7, 2013When their second daughter was born, two years after the first, Laura and Paul* decided they would both take leave to care for their children. Laura took maternity leave for the first six months.

For the next four months, Dad took over. Paul cared for his infant daughter, encouraged the imaginative flights of his older daughter, and experimented in the kitchen. Today, he shares those early memories with the girls—deepening the bond that began with that early nurturing.

Laura continues to work for the same private sector employer, and Paul has advanced to a senior public sector position. Not only was his career not damaged by taking parental leave, but Paul also earned the respect—and probably the envy—of his colleagues.

And the girls consider both of their parents to be caregivers and role models.

Is this a golden example of the success of Canada’s maternity and parental leave system? Unfortunately it isn’t—it’s more an exceptional instance of government programs working in concert with corporate policies and supportive management to encourage strong employees to create a strong family.

Laura and Paul were fortunate that they both work for employers who offered generous top-up above and beyond the standard Employment Insurance (EI) benefits for maternity and parental leave.

In Canada, the EI system covers 55 percent of a mother’s salary for 15 weeks, to maximum of $44,200. An additional 35 weeks of parental leave can be used by either parent. Adoptive parents are also eligible for parental leave.

Compared with many jurisdictions, Canada’s system is generous. And the parental leave provision has effectively encouraged fathers to take time to enjoy those early days of childhood. The number of fathers taking some leave leapt from 3 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2006 and 30 percent in 2010.

But as the numbers above demonstrate, fewer than half of new Canadian fathers take advantage of this incredible opportunity. Why not? For many couples, it’s an economic decision.

They simply cannot afford to lose significant income. Frequently, the father’s is the higher income, and forfeiting part of it would create a greater financial challenge.

As employers compete for top talent, however, some of them are considering expanding top-up for maternity and parental benefits. Although it’s hard to determine the proportion of Canadian employers who offer top-up benefits, Statistics Canada studies indicate that only one in five mothers were eligible for top-up in 2008.

The public sector and large firms are most likely to have top-up programs. Laura’s small firm is unusual in providing benefits to compete for talent in the largely public sector town where they live. The firm has learned that it’s more likely to keep its best people if it offers flexible work arrangements.

Who benefits? Paul would say that he benefits every day from the strong attachment that he established during the magical summer he spent with his girls. And his daughters understand that gender doesn’t have to dictate function—as their parents like to tell them, they can be anything except President of the United States (but certainly Prime Minister!) or a Catholic priest.

Best of all for Canadian business, Laura’s and Paul’s employers have kept strong performers who continue to grow professionally and are always ready to take on new challenges.

*Subjects’ names changed by request