02/26/2020 Jeni Kramer

The dad dilemma: how paternity leave policies miss the mark

Whether you’re a first time parent, or adding another bench player to your family soccer team, navigating the return to work after the birth of a child can be tricky. Questions like “Does my employer offer leave?” “Will it be paid?” “How long can I take without risking my career?” have long plagued mothers returning to work after giving birth. But it’s only recently that we are openly considering how these questions impact new fathers as well. 

While society writ large is shifting to a more egalitarian approach to parenthood, paternity leave policies and their adoption have a long way to go in supporting that progressive sea change. The New York Times reports that while 90% of new fathers take some time away from the office following the birth of a child, the majority of men take less than 10 days. 10 DAYS! For perspective, ten days equates to a mere 100 of the estimated 2,200 diaper changes required in baby’s first year alone. 

To leave or not to leave

Though it might be tempting to blame the deluge of dirty diapers, men are not returning to work immediately because they want to. It is largely due to the fact that many companies do not offer paternity leave and if they do, it is rarely fully paid. The United States is the only developed country among 41 nations that does not mandate employers provide paid leave for either parent. In partnerships where women may need to take unpaid or partially paid leave to physically recover from birth, the burden to return to work and earn a full salary often falls to fathers. Simply put, someone has to bring home the bacon! The interplay between the leave offered to both partners is a key consideration in whether or not men will opt to take the full time allotted to them. 

In November of 2019, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon wrote on LinkedIn that all employees would have access to 20 weeks of paid leave regardless of their gender or caregiver status. This is a notable example in a larger trend of companies improving their parental leave policies. But a growing body of evidence shows that policy changes alone are not enough. Entrenched workplace cultures are another major factor preventing fathers from utilizing their full parental leave. 

Even if their employer offers a generous paid leave policy, many men feel conflicted taking time off. While on leave, there may be pressure to remain available for input on projects or ongoing efforts. There is also the anxiety associated with knowing they will likely return to a daunting backlog of work. Many fathers fear being penalized, whether intentionally or unintentionally, for taking the full time available to them. These concerns, combined with fears about jeopardizing their overall career trajectory, cause many fathers to opt out of using their full benefit.

From the top down

Changing the culture is no small task, but employers must be up for the challenge. Offering flexible arrangements (allowing fathers to spread their leave out over an extended period, rather than utilizing it all at once) is one strategy to increase adoption, as is providing intercompany resource networks for fathers to connect with and get advice from others who have taken parental leave. Continual, top-down communication about the policy is also key. It is difficult to maximize a benefit when you aren’t crystal clear on what is available to you.

Perhaps the most important factor in shifting culture is for company leaders to walk the walk. Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, was vocal about utilizing his company’s full 16 weeks of paid parental leave after his wife, Serena Williams, experienced near-fatal complications during childbirth. Well-known business leaders, like Ohanian, speaking openly and unapologetically about taking time to care for their families has immense power to shift the perception around fathers who take paternity leave. It may be tempting for those at the leadership level to allow workplace obligations to eclipse family responsibilities, but their example is a crucial component in affecting wholesale change.

Why leave matters

There is a massive societal benefit to be gained in fathers taking paternity leave. A more equal distribution of parenting responsibilities is a powerful tool in combating the systematic disadvantages encountered by working moms, known by sociologists as “the motherhood penalty.” Not to mention, it leads to lower divorce rates and improves a father’s long-term bond with their children. But let’s not overlook that there is a strong business case to be made for paternity leave as well. Generous parental leave policies can help companies attract talent. LinkUp’s own jobs data shows 2,800 job listings with the term “paternity leave” in the description, indicating it is an appealing benefit for job seekers. Additionally, an Ernst & Young global generational survey shows 83% of American millennials said they would be more likely to join a company offering such benefits.

There is little mystery behind this appeal. After all, generous, paid parental leave means not having to choose between a thriving career and a fulfilling family life. Ongoing cultural conversations about maternity and paternity leave are important in forging a path for both companies and working parents. Here’s hoping that path ultimately leads to a happier, more balanced life for all families.