Daddy Track: The Case for Paternity Leave

It makes men more involved at home, women more involved at work, and workplaces friendlier for all parents.

Brock Davis

When Chris Renshaw told his co-workers that he was planning to take six weeks of paternity leave, they responded with overwhelming support. “It’s definitely looked at in a good light,” says Renshaw, 28, who lives in Northern California and was taking infant-care classes to hone his diapering and baby-bathing skills. “People have said, ‘That’s a great idea—take as much as you can. It’s time that you can be with your child.’ ”

This would hardly be surprising if Renshaw worked for one of the legions of progressive tech companies in the Bay Area, but he’s a firefighter. His decision to take paternity leave, and his fellow firefighters’ enthusiastic reaction, is a sign of a new phase in our never-ending quest for work-life harmony.

As usual, California is at the vanguard of this shift. While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act has long granted up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to mothers and fathers in large and medium-size workplaces, in 2002 California became the first U.S. state to guarantee six weeks of paid leave for mothers and fathers alike, financed by a small payroll-tax contribution from eligible workers. Since then, Rhode Island and New Jersey have followed suit with four and six paid weeks, respectively, while other states are taking steps toward similar policies.* In Silicon Valley, many tech giants have gone above and beyond the government mandate: Google offers men seven weeks of paid leave; Yahoo, eight; and Reddit and Facebook, a generous 17.

Paternity leave has also begun to enter the corporate and cultural mainstream. According to a study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family, which surveyed men in a number of Fortune 500 companies, most new fathers now take at least some time off after the birth of a baby, though few depart the workplace for more than two weeks. In England, Prince William took two weeks’ leave from his job as a military search-and-rescue helicopter pilot when his son, George, was born. Even Major League Baseball has formalized paternity leave—albeit three days’ worth—for players, partnering with Dove’s line for men in a pro-fatherhood campaign called Big League Dads.

But here’s what men may not realize: While paid paternity leave may feel like an unexpected gift, the biggest beneficiaries aren’t men, or even babies. In the long run, the true beneficiaries of paternity leave are women, and the companies and nations that benefit when women advance. In October, the World Economic Forum released its latest global gender-gap report, showing that countries with the strongest economies are those that have found ways to further women’s careers, close the gender pay gap, and keep women—who in most nations are now better educated than men—tethered to the workforce after they become mothers. One strikingly effective strategy used by the highest-ranking countries is paternity leave, which, whatever else it may accomplish, is a brilliant and ambitious form of social engineering: a behavior-modification tool that has been shown to boost male participation in the household, enhance female participation in the labor force, and promote gender equity in both domains.

The genius of paternity leave is that it shapes domestic and parenting habits as they are forming. While most mothers in the United States now work, many women still see their careers suffer after they became parents, in part because they end up shouldering the bulk of the domestic load—a phenomenon the sociologist Arlie Hochschild has dubbed the “second shift.” A 2007 study found that 60 percent of professional women who stopped working reported that they were largely motivated by their husbands’ unavailability to share housework and child-care duties. Paternity leave is a chance to intervene at what one study called “a crucial time of renegotiation”: those early, sleep-deprived weeks of diaper changes and midnight feedings, during which couples fall into patterns that turn out to be surprisingly permanent.

Maternity leave, on the other hand, has mostly medical origins. As early as the late 19th century in certain countries, taking a leave of absence was compulsory before and after birth. After World War II, some European countries used compulsory-leave policies to funnel women from the factories and offices they’d filled during the war back into what was seen as their proper domestic sphere. But the medical benefits are real; by the 1970s, as the ranks of working women rose, maternity leave was increasingly understood as a way to safeguard the health of women and children, giving mothers time to recover from childbirth and take babies to those early, frequent doctor appointments. Studies have confirmed that when women take maternity leave, babies get breast-fed longer and infant-mortality rates go down.

In recent decades, the rationale has expanded, thanks in part to adoptive parents who made the sensible case that not giving birth to your child doesn’t invalidate the need to spend intimate time with a small, vulnerable person who has just joined your family. This crusade helped pave the way for dads, encouraging the idea that leave is as much about forming attachments as recovering from medical trauma. California’s six weeks are known as “bonding leave” (mothers who give birth can add this to a period of paid disability leave).

Somewhat paradoxically, paternity leave has also evolved as a way for progressive countries to correct for an overly enthusiastic embrace of paid leave for mothers. We tend to think of Scandinavia and northern Europe as exemplars of work-family balance, but a tangle of warring policies in these regions has led to a few backfires. In their pursuit of an egalitarian workplace (and higher fertility rates), countries like Sweden and Germany have at times offered women more than a year of maternity leave—sometimes quite a bit more—a strategy that can fortify the glass ceiling rather than shatter it. Anticipating that women will disappear for long periods of time, managers become reluctant to hire them into senior positions, and female workers are shunted (or shunt themselves) into lower-paying sectors. Among labor economists, overly long maternity leaves are now recognized as creating a barrier to pay equity. At home, meanwhile, long leaves result in women doing most of the housework and child care.

Some countries began recalibrating, shortening leave for women and offering “neutral leave” that could be taken by either parent—but which became de facto maternity leave. So policy makers decided to make men an offer they would feel ashamed to refuse. Norway, Iceland, Germany, Finland, and several other countries offered a variety of incentives to nudge men to take leave. Some countries offered them more money, which helped men feel that they were financially supporting their families even when they were at home. Many also adopted a “use it or lose it” approach, granting each family a total amount of leave, a certain portion of which could be used only by fathers.

Fathers who take leave are more likely, a year or so down the road, to bathe their kids, change their diapers, and read them bedtime stories.

The brilliance of “daddy days,” as this solution came to be known, is that, rather than feeling stigmatized for taking time off from their jobs, many men now feel stigmatized if they don’t. The economist Ankita Patnaik, who has studied Quebec’s implementation of such a policy, told me that “families felt they were wasting something” if the father didn’t take leave. In 2006, Quebec increased the financial benefits for paid leave and offered five weeks that could be taken only by fathers. “That’s what really made a difference,” Patnaik told me. “Now dads might feel bad for not taking leave—your baby loses this time with parents.” Since then, the percentage of Quebecois fathers taking paternity leave has skyrocketed, from about 10 percent in 2001 to more than 80 percent in 2010.

The policy has achieved many of the hoped-for long-term outcomes, chief among them more fluidity in who does what around the house. Previous studies found that fathers who take paternity leave are more likely, a year or so down the road, to change diapers, bathe their children, read them bedtime stories, and get up at night to tend to them. Patnaik’s study confirmed this; looking at time-use diaries, she found that men who were eligible for the new leave—whether or not they took it—ended up spending more time later on routine chores like shopping and cooking.

If these changes sound minor, they aren’t. As men have taken on more domestic work over the past 20 or so years, they have gravitated toward the fun stuff, like hanging out with the kids, rather than the boring but inescapable duties, like boiling the ravioli or vacuuming Cheerios out of the family-room carpet. The University of Oregon sociologist Scott Coltrane has noted that when men share “routine repetitive chores,” women feel they are being treated fairly and are less likely to become depressed.

In Quebec, women whose husbands were eligible for the new leave were more likely to return to their original employers and were more likely to work full-time, resulting in their spending “considerably” more hours on paid work. (When women work full-time, it alters the home division of labor more than when they work part-time.) And as women were spending more time working for pay, men were spending less: the Quebec paternity-leave policy resulted in a small but long-term decrease in fathers’ time at work.

Working fathers increasingly report feeling more work-family conflict than working mothers do.

This finding hints at the possibility that paternity leave could erode the fabled “fatherhood wage premium.” In the early 20th century, employers explicitly and even proudly paid married men more than they paid single men—and much more than they paid women—in recognition of the fact that husbands were the conduit by which families got fed. Even after employers dropped these formal policies, fathers have continued to enjoy a wage bonus, either because they are seen as being more motivated and reliable, or because they work longer hours, or both. But Patnaik’s study suggests that paternity leave might give men a new mind-set, prompting them to trade more money for more time at home, more flexibility, or both. In this way, it could make men behave more like women.

Which points to a core goal of many workplace-equity policies: spreading the parenthood stigma around. Widespread paternity-leave plans raise the possibility that bosses will stop looking askance at the résumé of a 20‑something female applicant, or at least apply the same scrutiny to a similar male applicant.

While it’s too soon to tell whether California’s, New Jersey’s, and Rhode Island’s paid-paternity-leave programs will be as transformative as Quebec’s, the early signs are positive. Since California instituted its program, the percentage of “bonding leaves” claimed by men has risen from 18.7 in 2005 and 2006 to 31.3 in 2012 and 2013. A study by the economist Eileen Appelbaum and the sociologist Ruth Milkman showed that initial concerns that the California law would be a “job killer” were unfounded, and that workplaces have figured out effective and creative ways to cover for leave-taking parents. The biggest hurdle seems to be getting the word out, particularly among lower-income families that could benefit enormously from the program. (Part of the beauty of the California policy is that it extends leave to men in non-white-collar jobs.)

News stories and conventional wisdom suggest that men still feel judged when they take paternity leave, so I was struck, while speaking with a New York City dads’ group, by how many of its members had received positive reinforcement from bosses and colleagues after announcing their decision to take leave. A different study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family has found that for men, joining the “parents club” tends to have positive professional consequences: fathers are more readily permitted to adjust their work hours than are mothers, who are often viewed as less committed and less promotable. The study also found that men tend not to ask for formal work-life policies; they use “stealth” methods instead, like slipping out to coach soccer practice. Part of the leniency toward working dads, of course, may be due to the fact that they simply haven’t asked for much.

But now they’re asking. Rich Gallagher, who works in public relations in New York, had a supportive employer when he took his first leave. But he’d switched jobs by the time his second child was born, and found that taking time off “soured” his standing and won him dirty looks from colleagues. He left that job, and even now that he doesn’t need paternity leave anymore, he looks at potential employers’ leave policies as a benchmark for whether they are committed to work-life balance.

Most men who take leave, it’s important to note, don’t take anything close to six weeks, and many are obliged to use vacation time for part or all of whatever time they do take. In the U.S., we are only just starting to wrap our minds around longer paternity leave. “Two weeks for men may be the best we can hope for in the medium term,” says Scott Behson, a management professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, who blogs about fatherhood. He suggests a compromise in which men receive two weeks of paid leave, followed by a flexible schedule that would enable them to take a paid day or two off each week. Companies like Deloitte, which offers three to eight weeks of paid paternity leave, are finding that many men prefer to stagger their time off, taking a few weeks when the baby is born, for example, and then more time when their wives go back to work.

Options like these may help to address the somewhat surprising fact that, regardless of whatever plaudits or premiums they may or may not enjoy in the office, working fathers increasingly report feeling more work-family conflict than working mothers do. A 2011 report concluded that the most-conflicted men are those who are stuck working long hours yet feel they should be at home.

In another sign of how paternity leave can narrow the gap between working mothers and fathers, more than one man I spoke with had made a decision long familiar to mothers who find themselves trapped in the office after bedtime too many nights. Upon the birth of his first child, Lance Somerfeld planned to take paternity leave from his teaching job at a big elementary school in the Bronx. He looked forward to being home, and his wife’s career was going well. As they thought about the future, they reckoned that child-care costs would eat up most of his after-tax salary, so he decided to extend his leave indefinitely. When Somerfeld informed the school that he would not be returning, at least not anytime soon, his principal went on the PA system and announced, “Mr. Somerfeld will be leaving us next year to become a modern man!”

*Due to an editing error, this article originally stated that New Jersey and Rhode Island offered 12 and 13 weeks of paid leave, respectively.

Liza Mundy is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family.


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