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Should Men Be Required to Take Paternity Leave?

Published almost 2 years ago • 5 min read

In mid-February, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal announced his intention to take a few weeks off following the birth of his second child. The reactions to this have been mixed — there are those criticizing his decision to take that much time off, those who applaud him for doing so, and even those who wonder why he’s not taking more time off given that Twitter offers 20 weeks of parental leave.

Agrawal certainly isn’t the first public figure to receive this type of backlash. Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. transportation secretary, also faced harsh criticism for taking paternity leave when he and his husband welcomed twins last August. And when Toms shoes founder Blake Mycoskie announced he’d be taking leave in May of 2015, he described being faced with comments like "You're going to get real bored, real quick" and “How are you supposed to lead a company while changing diapers?"

That was almost 7 years ago, and it’s clear that not much has changed since then. In fact, the mixed responses to Agrawal’s recent announcement underscore a deep cultural bias that I believe will be difficult to overcome without broader action — perhaps even company-wide mandates requiring new fathers to take time off.

Let’s look at what the data shows around this issue:

  • The median length of leave for fathers in the U.S. is about one week, compared to 11 weeks for mothers.
  • 70% of men take 10 days or less for parental leave, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • Only 5% of new dads take at least two weeks of parental leave, according to research from Ball State sociology professor Richard Petts.

These numbers are alarming, especially when you consider the many benefits of paternity leave coupled with the fact that working moms have struggled immensely during the pandemic. In this article I’ll explore some of the benefits of paternity leave, examine why more men aren’t taking time off, and discuss why policy changes alone may not be enough to drive change.

The far-reaching benefits of paternity leave

The benefits of spending time at home with a newborn go beyond simply establishing a strong bond and taking some of the caretaking burden off of the mother. Research from McKinsey finds that 90% of men notice an improvement in their relationship with their partner as a result of taking paternity leave. Studies also show that when fathers are involved with newborn care, it can decrease symptoms of maternal postpartum depression.

There’s also the bigger picture around how paternity leave can help move the needle on gender equity, both at home and in the workplace. One study of over 9,000 families found that for each month that a father spent at home on paternity leave, the mom’s income rose by about 7%. And let’s not forget that the simple act of a new dad participating in newborn care can make a powerful statement about the importance of caretaking duties for both parents.

Employers should note that there are business benefits as well. In McKinsey’s study, many fathers said that they felt more motivated after taking leave and that being able to take time off increased their desire to stay with their organization. Men also reported that taking leave helped them improve the way they work and become more productive, for example by learning how to prioritize their time better.

Why aren’t men taking more paternity leave?

Given this long list of benefits, why aren’t new fathers taking more time off? First and foremost, there’s the simple reason that most Americans don’t have access to paid family leave through their employer. Research from SHRM reveals that just 55% of employers offer paid maternity leave and 45% offer paid paternity leave.

Indeed, the U.S is the only wealthy country in the world without any guaranteed paid parental leave. While a proposal to provide 12 weeks of paid parental leave to all Americans is a cornerstone of President Biden's American Families plan, this is slated to take place “within a decade” — and I think most people would agree that change is needed sooner than that.

In fact, Pew Research finds that nearly 70% of Americans support paid paternity leave. It should come as no surprise, then, that a growing number of companies are expanding their leave programs as a way to attract and retain talent amidst the ongoing Great Resignation. Netflix has offered unlimited maternity and paternity leave since 2015, and Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Deloitte, and Twitter all have generous leave programs that are inclusive of new dads.

Ironically, the companies offering the best leave policies are often in industries dominated by men (e.g., tech and finance). And while this is a step in the right direction for men and women in those sectors, even the most forward-thinking employers are finding that many new fathers are afraid to take time off. So I think we can easily conclude that men in less progressive companies are even less likely to use their paternity leave — if they even have this as a benefit.

Why simply offering paternity leave may not be enough

While adding gender-neutral parental leave is an important place to start, by no means is this some sort of magic bullet. The reality is that our cultural feelings around caretaking duties and extended leaves of absence from work are deeply rooted and unlikely to shift anytime soon. In fact, there have been many articles and studies on this topic, all of which conclude that offering paternity leave isn’t effective when men don’t feel they can make use of it without derailing their career.

For example, McKinsey’s research found that the risk of a career setback is the main downside of taking paternity leave. “Fathers in our survey felt that having the right policy in place wasn’t sufficient if the work culture looked down on them for taking time off,” their report noted. “One [father] even described leave as having “irrevocably” harmed his progress, though he still believes it was the right thing to do for his family.”

That’s why I agree with Reshma Saujani, an American lawyer and politician who recently authored an article on why men should be required (or strongly encouraged) to take parental leave. Saujani suggests “incentivizing, even mandating, family leave for new fathers and partners of birthing mothers and tying performance reviews, pay, and promotion considerations to it.”

It’s a bold suggestion, but in a situation like this one I think there are merits to this approach. The gap between where we are and where we need to be is so vast, and the benefits are indisputable — so why not take steps to move things in the right direction? Imagine a world where all those feelings of guilt and fears of a career setback were taken off the table, and instead new fathers knew that their employers would simply require them to do the right thing for their family.

I don’t think many new dads would say “No thank you, I’d prefer to get back to work rather than participate in one of the most important time periods of my family’s life.” So I agree with Saujani — if your company is doing everything right yet you’re still not seeing new fathers make use of their parental leave, a stronger approach might be something to consider.

Thanks for reading — I’d love to know your thoughts, so be sure to join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know how we can move the needle on paternity leave.

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