When expectant father Brian asked his boss about paternity leave, his boss thought he meant maternity leave — the company didn’t offer it for men. The company ended up granting Brian just 1.7 days to spend with his wife and newborn child. That meant if his wife gave birth on a Monday morning, he’d be back at work Tuesday afternoon.
Brian’s story is featured in the documentary Zero Weeks, and as the name suggests, the U.S. is one of only a few countries in the world with zero weeks of mandated paid family leave. We’re also the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave, and one of two that doesn’t offer paid paternity leave.
What the U.S. does have is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): Americans whose workplaces meet certain requirements are guaranteed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for family members.
Without federally mandated paid leave, dozens of states, cities, and counties have taken paid leave policies into their own hands, including California in 2002, where 89 percent of employers say that in the years since it was enacted, the policy has had positive or no noticeable effects on productivity and 91 percent say it has improved or not affected profitability and performance. Other states to follow suit with similar policies include New Jersey in 2009, Rhode Island in 2013, and most recently New York in April 2016. At the private level, companies like Facebook and Netflix have made headlines for their generous parental leave policies.
Still, paid leave is accessible to just 13 percent of workers. That means, says Zero Weeks director Ky Dickens, 87 percent “are left to their own devices when it comes to making decisions about staying home with a baby or losing a job.”
And as Brian’s story shows, American culture still assumes that parental leave, like much of parenting, is the domain of women — never mind that this stereotype completely ignores same-sex male partnerships. It also ignores reality: Men want leave and they use it when it’s available. “When [paternity leave] is offered and there’s some kind of wage replacement, men are taking it,” says Scott Behson, professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University and author of The Working Dad’s Survival Guide. (A 2014 Boston College study backs this up.) Of course, as Behson points out, there’s a catch: “Not everyone is offering it.”
A Department of Labor report says that nine out of 10 fathers take some time off after the birth or adoption of a child. Unfortunately, they don’t get nearly enough of it: That same report says that 70 percent of men take off just 10 days or fewer.
More Dads Want a Seat at the Changing Table
The idea that childrearing is for women is clearly outdated, and the law must catch up. Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values @ Work, says that, in her experience, “there are lots of men who feel parenting is a joy and want to be part of it. As one man put it to me, dads don’t want to be seen as doing ‘their part’ any longer.”
The hours that men spend caregiving are steadily going up. It’s a trend Sarah Verbiest, DrPH and executive director of the UNC Center for Maternal and Infant Health, is excited by. “Men are wanting to be more engaged with their kids, especially millennials, and we need to really support shared caregiving,” she says. The best way to do that, Verbiest says, is with more gender-inclusive leave policies. “When we have policy that supports that it’s okay for dads to stay home too, it can help build credibility for that role and encourage more men to lean into that space,” she says.
Paternity Leave Is Good for Moms, Too
Working mothers pay a penalty simply for being a mother. In fact, “being a mom is a greater predictor of wage and hiring discrimination than being a woman,” says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising. “One of the ways that studies show this discrimination can be stopped is by having everybody take paid family leave.”
A Swedish study found a mother’s income went up 7 percent for every month a partner took off after a child was born. Dickens says the reason for this is clear: “If you’re home and you’re not the birth parent, you’re learning the drill, so Mom feels comfortable leaving and going back to work. If you don’t have that, then caregiving drags a woman out of the workforce or puts up a glass ceiling where she can only have certain jobs that give her a flexible schedule.”
Paid Parental Leave Makes Business Sense
Behson says a strong case for supporting parents of both genders is employee retention. “Many companies are finding they’re starting to lose new dads like they’ve always lost new moms. Men are figuring out, ‘I can’t work here and be the kind of dad I want to be, so I’m going to find another place to work.’”
Case study after case study shows just how much paid family leave impacts employee retention, productivity, and happiness. Take Spotify, for example. In November of 2015, the company announced a global six-month, 100 percent paid parental leave policy and was recently ranked the second-best place to work for new dads — behind Netflix, which offers unlimited parental leave. Michael Kim, global HR business partner at Spotify, says the company has gotten a lot of positive feedback, especially from fathers. “We encourage our employees to take as much time as possible with their families and to really disconnect [from work],” says Kim.
The company’s competitive policy has also attracted new employees: Kim says when the change was announced, Spotify saw a spike in job applications. No surprise there, given 89 percent of men in the Boston College study said it was important for employers to provide paid parental leave.
The policy was inspired by the company’s roots in Sweden, where paid leave laws are generous (at 100 percent paid, Spotify’s policy is even better than Sweden’s 80 percent paid mandate). All of this, says Kim, aligns with the company’s people-first culture. “When we created the policy, we asked ourselves: What can we do in the best interest of our people? Really, it’s all about fostering retention, loyalty, satisfaction, and happiness.”
This notion of thinking about employees as whole people is a key shift, says Behson. “You start thinking long term about employees’ well-being and how that leads to sustainable, really good performance.”
The Future of Family Leave
So what do experts predict the future holds? Bravo anticipates that Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts will pass paid leave laws this year; 18 more states are considering paid leave legislation next year. “There will be more wins in ’17, and more wins in ’18, and so on. And that’s going to lead us to a national policy,” Bravo says.
And what can individuals do to bring about change like this? Exercise your power with your vote, call your congresspeople, and take a stand against outdated cultural mores about parenting. And men need visible role models to show you can still progress in a company and be an equal parent. “Men who have job security and a track record of performance need to step up and be brave,” Behson says.
Rowe-Finkbeiner says the movement is gaining momentum and it’s only a matter of time. “It’s no longer a question of if, but when, we’ll have national family leave policy. We’re seeing the dominos start to fall.”