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The Importance Of Paternity Leave

Written by Sara Langer

Photography by Tobi Adamolekun, Photographed by Maria Del Rio

Parental leave policies (or lack thereof) have been a hot topic in recent years. Shockingly, the United States is the only industrialized nation worldwide that lacks a national maternity leave policy, even though the benefits of providing paid leave have been well documented. While other countries offer more generous benefits for new mothers, most of the world is still lacking when it comes to parental leave for new fathers, with only a handful of nations providing more than two weeks of paid paternity leave. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 70% of men take ten days or less off work after the birth or adoption of a child, and only 13% of men who took parental leave received pay. 

So, how did we get here? The current Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires any U.S. company with 50 or more employees to offer 12-weeks of unpaid leave after birth or adoption for men and women that have met the minimum requirements (which includes working at the company at least 1,250 hours over the last 12 months). Unfortunately, many families cannot afford to have both parents take time off of work without pay and not every employee will qualify for FMLA job protection. On a local level, some cities and states have created their own legislation in regards to paid parental leave. California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York provide pay through their state disability programs and San Francisco recently became the first U.S. city to offer full pay for six weeks for both new mothers and fathers (employed by companies with 20 or more employees). Many big, well-known companies (McDonald’s, GE, Lowe’s) are offering more benefits and paid time off for new parents, but overall, less than 20% of U.S. employers are offering paid parental leave for fathers. 

Plus, when men do take time off, there is cultural stigma to deal with. A 2015 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found even when time off is provided, most new fathers do not take the maximum time allowed and 36% of men reported not taking time off because they thought it might jeopardize their career. Stigmas and challenges aside, there are a plethora of benefits when fathers are able to take a proper paternity leave when a new baby arrives. Some of the biggest we’ve summarized below.

Being a hands-on father, in the beginning, leads to more involvement later on.
Multiple studies in the U.S. and Europe have found that when fathers are involved in caring for a newborn baby, they are more likely to be hands-on throughout the first year of the child’s life and beyond. Fathers also report being more satisfied and engaged in parenting when they take an extended leave.

 There are cognitive and development benefits for children, especially girls.
When fathers are more hands-on with their parenting it can lead to improved cognitive and mental health outcomes for children. A long-term study by the University of of Oslo shows a correlation between fathers taking extended paternity leave and improved outcomes in secondary school. The outcomes were more significant for girls.

When fathers take leave it can benefit women’s careers.
Many women are familiar with the “Motherhood Penalty”, whether they have children or not. Even when there are public or private policies that provide paid leave, there is still a stigma in some workplaces with taking time to care for a child. When parental leave is provided for mothers and fathers, men can take on more of the responsibility and there may be less burden on women. Studies in Canada and Sweden show that when fathers take more paternity leave, mothers can increase their full-time work and it often leads to higher wages for women and has a positive impact on the female labor force.

Providing paternity leave can help challenge gender norms.
In 2015, The Washington Post published an article stating that moms do more work around the house then dads. But that dynamic can change if more egalitarian roles are established from the beginning. The U.S. Department of Labor states: “When men increase their use of paternity leave, time studies show that the amount of household work fathers and mothers perform may become more gender-balanced over time, with the men spending longer amounts of time per day on household chores and childcare.” If fathers are able to take more time at home and have increased flexibility with their employers, the so-called “chore gap” might also shrink.

Long-term benefits outweigh short-term costs for employers.
When companies offer paid leave to their employees, it shows a long-term investment in their people, which can lead to greater job satisfaction and employee retention. Providing paid leave, for both mothers and fathers, helps keep parents in the workforce. A survey of hundreds of companies in California, one of the few states that offers paid leave, showed that long-term the policy did not have much of an impact on business operations, but it leads to greater long-term investment and productivity from employees.

Paternity leave is a privilege that many lower-paid workers can’t take, even when part of their wages are covered.
Many families cannot afford to have one or both parents take unpaid time off of work. And while a few states do offer paid leave, generally about 50% of wages are covered and that is not enough for many families. It is great to see big companies offering extended, full paid leave, but also important to realize that many of these companies are often employing higher-paid workers. If national and state-level policies are expanded to cover paid leave for a wider group of workers, The Department of Labor does report that significantly more fathers will take time off to care for their families if they know their wages will be covered.

For more on this topic, check out our piece on The Motherhood Penalty & Fatherhood Bonus, which explains why workplace flexibility for both parents and non-parents is the way of the future.

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