Paternity leave isn’t just about dads


(ALAMY)

I’ll never forget the day my husband walked into my home office a few months ago and made the following confession: “I’m in love with her.”

It took my sleep-deprived brain a moment to realize who he meant. Of course, he was talking about our seven-week-old daughter — the sweet baby girl sleeping upstairs who’d recently begun returning our smiles. He had taken a few days of vacation after she was born, but this was the first day he’d spent with her without her doting grandparents, our boisterous three-year-old, or even me (I'd begun working from home again) hovering around. It was the start of his three weeks of paternity leave, and it had suddenly dawned on him how little time he'd spent with her.

My husband is fortunate, of course. Many fathers don’t get that kind of paid time off with their newborns. According to a 2012 study by the Families and Work Institute, just 14 percent of employers offer any kind of paid leave for the spouses of women who’ve given birth, a ratio that’s been virtually unchanged since 2005. And while the Family Medical Leave Act does allow many fathers to take time off after a new child is born, that coverage is unpaid. Compare that to the 10 weeks of paid leave reserved for fathers in Norway (dads there can choose to take far more) or the two weeks for fathers in France, where President Francois Hollande is trying to extend that benefit to six months.

But my husband is also fortunate to work in a place where he had no concerns about taking the time off he was offered. Giving fathers leave is one thing; getting them to take it is another. Whether due to fears about how it will affect their future advancement or social stigmas that persist around men taking on care-giving roles, fathers often don’t use the benefit they're granted.

It's difficult to find broad-based studies that show exactly how often it gets left on the table. But benefits consultants say that while more men are starting to take leave, the rate of use in corporate workplaces is not very high. "Anecdotally, companies offer more leave to men than men take," said Carol Sladek, a partner for the human resources consulting firm Aon Hewitt. "They feel there’s a stigma associated with paternity leave."

A 2012 study of tenure-track faculty suggests the same thing happens in academia: 69 percent of the female professors interviewed by the researchers took the paid parental leave they were offered after the birth of a child, compared with just 12 percent of the male professors. And if new dads do take time off — be it vacation days, sick time or actual parental leave — they don’t take very much. One 2011 study found that three-quarters of men take a week or less off after the birth of a child. Less than 1 percent took more than a month.

But the hesitant embrace of paternity leave in the American workplace is not just a problem for men. It can also be an obstacle for women. Joan Williams, the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings, noted that when an employer tells her it is committed to women’s advancement, the first question she asks is whether fathers at the companies take paternity leave. “They are typically taken aback by the question, and then admit that they take no more than a week or two,” Williams told me in an e-mail. "It’s important not to ask whether 'men take leave' but whether men take the kind of leaves women do."

Many companies pride themselves on their generous maternity leaves as a way to retain women. But too many of them forget about the role paternity leave plays in advancing women, too, said Kenneth Matos, the senior director of employment research and practice at the Families and Work Institute. Fathers who take paternity leave offer peace of mind to mothers returning to work, save money on child-care costs (if their leave is paid), and may be more involved with caring for their children over time, freeing mothers up to take on more work. “Organizations are shortsighted when they keep thinking about men and women as separate pools of employees and forget they usually come together to form families," he said.

That’s especially important as more women become primary breadwinners in the family, as a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center revealed. Many existing leave policies, Matos said, assume that mothers will be the ones to take extended time off even if she's the one with the the better job or better career prospects. The way many policies for dads are currently set up, "his time becomes a bonus, the same way people used to talk about women’s income being the icing on the cake.”

So how can organizations get men to take more paternity leave--a move that gives an assist to the women in their ranks, too? For now, the answer is likely to be a cultural one rather than a policy one. The kind of government incentives offered by countries like Germany — which gives two extra months of parental leave to a family if those months are taken by the father — is probably wishful thinking for American workers. And while a national standard on paid family leave might make it more widely used, only two states currently guarantee it.

In the meantime, leaders within organizations can try and recognize the stereotypes that persist and make changes to prevent them. One way to send the message that it’s okay for dads to take leave is to get senior managers to do diaper duty themselves. While that may be tricky because use of the perk, naturally, skews toward younger employees, organizations that showcase dads who take time off for their kids will help give “permission,” so to speak, to junior staffers to do the same.

Another solution is to stop talking about the issue as a working mother’s issue or even a working parent’s issue but as a family issue that impacts everyone. When family leave is treated as something that’s needed just as much by a senior executive with an aging parent as it is by a 20-something man or woman who's up all night with a crying baby, it's more easily seen as everyone’s problem. Ernst & Young, for instance, has recast its networking groups for working moms and dads under the name "Today's Families" to be more inclusive and treat family leave as something everyone may eventually need.

Perhaps the biggest shift in the number of men taking parental leave will come not from a political or cultural change, but from a demographic one. In Silicon Valley, where there's a talent war for young engineers (many of whom happen to be men), extended paternity leaves are becoming an increasingly popular perk: Yahoo now offers eight weeks of paid paternity leave to new dads, while Facebook offers new fathers an eye-popping four months. As younger workers demand more flexibility and see their parenting responsibilities more equally, there's likely to be a lot more experimentation and variation in how men and women piece together their parental leaves and post-baby careers, said Stew Friedman, a professor at Wharton and the founding director of its Work/Life Integration project.

Who knows what the typical paternity leave will look like by the time my daughter starts a family. Maybe paid parental leave will still be available to less than 15 percent of new dads, or maybe Yahoo's much-ballyhooed eight weeks will be standard. But one thing I do know is that if more men like her father take advantage of the time off they're offered, it should be a good thing not only for them -- but for my daughter, too.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · June 13, 2013