Facebook has already revolutionized how we communicate, network and keep tabs on our exes.
Might it — or at least its chief executive — soon “disrupt” parenting, too?
On Friday company founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that he planned to go on paternity leave. And not just for a few perfunctory days, mind you, but two whole months. (The company offers its U.S. employees up to four months of paid parental leave.)
It’s hard to overstate what a big deal this is.
Zuckerberg said this was a “very personal decision,” presumably based on what he and his wife believe is best for their family. But in making this choice so publicly, he’s also done a major solid for the men (and women, and children) of America.
That’s because he’s helping to finally destigmatize paternity leave.
Let’s be clear: Outside of the tech sector, relatively few Americans have access to paid family leave. Fewer than 1 in 6 U.S. firms offers paid paternity leave, according to recent surveys from the Society for Human Resource Management and the Families and Work Institute.
But even when men are offered paid leave, they usually don’t take it, or at least not for any substantial period of time. After California passed a law entitling most workers, both male and female, to up to six weeks of paid family leave, the average father took a whopping 7.5 days off after the birth of a child.
These behaviors belie what men, especially young men, say they want.
In survey after survey, fathers express a desire to be more active co-parents and more present in their children’s lives. Today’s men actually report having more difficulty balancing work and family responsibilities, and more parenting-relating guilt, than women do.
Men today seem to be fighting the battles that women first waged more than a generation ago over how to be taken seriously in the office while remaining involved, committed caregivers at home. Men who request flexible schedules, family leave (paid or unpaid) or other accommodations risk being viewed as weak, unmasculine and — most dangerously — insufficiently committed to their careers.
Such stigma hurts not only those frustrated, guilt-ridden fathers, but also children and beleaguered mothers. Research has shown that when women disproportionately take advantage of work-life accommodations, employers end up punishing women as a class, relegating them to so-called mommy tracks. Those women who do manage to hang on to demanding full-time careers are more likely to get stuck working the exhausting “second shift” at home than their male counterparts are.
So how do you encourage more men to take advantage of family-friendly policies when they’re actually offered?
Policy is one possible lever. Various developed countries have tried making paternity leave mandatory; introducing a pool of paid parental leave available only to fathers; and giving mothers bonus weeks of maternity leave if fathers take a minimum amount of leave. Such actions have been associated with big increases in paternity leave takeup rates.
In the United States, we don’t even require employers to provide paid maternity leave, of course. So this kind of “daddy leave quota” would be great but remains several steps away.
The lever we do have is celebrity role models such as Zuckerberg.
In the months since Zuckerberg announced that his wife, Priscilla Chan, was expecting, news coverage has been filled with speculation, and hope, that he would announce a lengthy paternity leave. Not only because the social science research suggests that it would be good for his family (as he noted in his Facebook post about his decision), but also because doing so would help encourage others — both at Facebook and elsewhere — to accept that taking leave is okay.
And there’s good reason to believe that Zuckerberg’s precedent might affect how other men weigh their options. One study, using Norwegian data, found that men were significantly more likely to take paternity leave if they had a brother or co-worker who did so. The peer effect was 2.5 times larger when the peer father was the senior manager in a firm as opposed to a regular co-worker.
There have of course been other executives or public figures whose parental leave decisions have been the subject of public scrutiny, emulation and condemnation. (Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, is inevitably, and in my view unfairly, the foil in this story, given her public pillorying for taking only two weeks of maternity leave.) But if you want to make parental leave seem simultaneously glamorous and normal, it’s hard to imagine a more effective national spokesman than this hoodied, self-made billionaire.