Paid Paternity Leave—an Antidote to the ‘Mommy Track’?

Seminar extols benefit of ‘use it or lose it’ leave just for fathers
  
 

By Dana Wilkie Feb 2, 2015
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Until U.S. businesses give their male workers paid paternity leave—and insist that fathers use it—then taking time off a job to care for a newborn will continue to stigmatize mostly women, stalling their careers and deflating their earnings, argued several panelists during a recent New America Foundation seminar.

The Jan. 28, 2015, event—“Where’s Your Daddy?”—was held in Washington, D.C., and explored the impediments to paid parental leave; the tendency for women, far more than men, to stay at home with newborns; and how paid paternity leave has worked in nations that offer it.

“We need paternity leave so that men can bond with their children in ways that will make them want to be the primary caregiver … and will then make it more socially acceptable to men to be in that role,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute. “We need that because we really want women at the very top … and the only way we’re going to get there is for men to be supporting women the way women have supported men.”

During his January 2015 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced his plan to expand paid leave for workers, starting with those in the federal government. Even though the Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid time off for caregiving purposes, few Americans can afford to take that much leave without pay.

Additionally, too many companies—not to mention cultural norms—tend to encourage women to take parental leave while discouraging men from doing the same, Slaughter said. And long periods of paid family leave, which women take far more often than men, tend to increase the gender pay gap because when women are out the workforce for lengthy periods, this encroaches on their employment experience.

“If more men took paternity leave, more men would say, ‘Why are you discriminating against me when I come back?’ ” she said. “ ‘Why are you assuming I’m no longer as committed to my career?’—which is what happens to women all the time.”

To get to that point, she said, workplace policies must “fully legitimize and value” parental leave for both genders.

Three states guarantee parental leave for men and women: California, Rhode Island and New Jersey. Some companies do the same, including Ernst & Young, Google and Deloitte. Federal employees do not have the right to take paid paternity or maternity leave.

At the federal level, the U.S. is only one of two nations, alongside Papua New Guinea, that doesn’t have some form of legally protected, partially paid time off for working women who’ve just had a baby. In Sweden, new mothers and fathers are entitled to 480 days of leave; for 390 of those days, they receive 80 percent of their paycheck.

Panelists at the seminar acknowledged that businesses fear that the costs of paid parental leave will hurt their bottom lines. Liza Mundy, director of New America’s Breadwinning and Caregiving Program, told of a woman who called into a radio show that Mundy participated in and complained that as the owner of a small business, she couldn’t afford to lose an employee for several weeks—and pay him or her as well.

“The business case for paternity leave … is not really evident to a lot of business owners,” Mundy said.

Jake Brewer, managing director of external affairs for the online petition platform Change.org, said his company offers new fathers 18 weeks of paid paternity leave. Brewer himself took the leave to care for his newborn.

“The culture has been such that it’s almost hard to come back,” he said, explaining that when he considered returning to work early, his colleagues insisted he use all his leave. “It’s often a very difficult thing” to resist the urge to return to work. 

Some research suggests that paid parental leave can actually increase corporate profits by improving employee recruitment, retention and motivation. Yet Brewer noted that many company policies still treat workers’ family obligations like “a hobby” rather than part of the very essence of their lives.

In 1999, the United Kingdom granted mothers 18 weeks of paid leave, six of those weeks at 90 percent of their wages and 12 at below minimum wage. In 2003, maternity leave was extended to 52 weeks, with 39 paid weeks and 13 unpaid weeks. In addition, paternity leave was introduced for the first time in 2003, allowing fathers two weeks off at below minimum wage.

In the ensuing seven years, work/life balance advocates petitioned the U.K. government for shared parental leave that would require that some time off be used by fathers, in place of mothers, or the men would lose the benefit. Advocates argued that their proposal would encourage women to stay in their jobs and that this would contribute to national productivity.

The proposal was defeated in 2010, and the resulting compromise was a system that allowed mothers to transfer their leave to fathers, even though fathers weren’t required to take it.

In Germany, parents are allowed a year of caregiving leave—10 months of it divided however they want between mother and father, and two months of which a father must use.

“It’s transformed paternity leave from this thing that only very few guys did to ‘How idiotic are you to leave money on the table?’ ” said Adrienne Burgess, joint chief executive and head of research for the Fatherhood Institute in the U.K., who noted that after the German policy took effect in 2007,the nation saw a 30 percent rise in the number of men who took paternity leave.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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