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Seminar extols benefit of ‘use it or lose it’ leave just for fathers
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
“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.
Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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