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Guest contribution by Michael Schroeder
United States workers who are starting or growing families face a unique challenge. Unlike their counterparts in every other developed nation, Americans do not have state-guaranteed paid time off to be with their newborn children.
Employees may be able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid vacation per year and still have a job to return to under the Family and Sick Leave Act (FMLA). But not all workers are qualified to do it, and many who simply are not financially able to take the time. (FMLA allows states to offer more coverage than federal law, and a handful of states have their own regulations; but only California, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island offer paid family and sick leave.)
As a result, parents rely heavily on paid parental leave schemes from employers who offer them. However, the vast majority of employers do not offer paid parental leave. and those who give fathers far less compensated leave than mothers. Experts point out that this creates additional difficulties for working fathers and mothers.
“I think these guidelines imply that mothers are and should be primarily responsible for childcare and parenting,” said Richard Petts, Ph.D., a sociology professor at Ball State University who studies parental leave guidelines extensively Has. He adds that the imbalance is making it even harder for fathers to take vacations, as they may face stigma, as well as the career punishments mothers face. Others say that such an imbalance in free time policies for parents does not support working mothers and sends the message that fathers are unnecessary.
This is because a traditional male-centered employer model treats men not as working parents but as employees with no family responsibilities. Women who take time off may also miss increases, opportunities for advancement, or have difficulty re-entering the world of work or are underemployed for those who take longer vacation. During parental leave, women are often considered the primary caregiver by default. And experts say that by offering fewer parental leave for men, these company policies assume that their partners – usually working mothers – will take on the lion’s share of childcare responsibilities.
Accordingly, survey data show that new fathers usually only have about a week off after having a child, while women need less than three months. During the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home is also not a solution for fathers or mothers, as newborns need practical care (read: undisturbed parenting).
A recent study that reviews the gender gap in parental leave looked at the examples in the industry: Fortune 500 companies. These top-earning US firms set the bar for everyone else. For this reason, sociology professor Gayle Kaufman, Petts and David College, felt it was worth assessing the precedent these top companies have set with their policies on parental leave, and specifically with regard to gender differences in those policies.
“The good news is that the majority of Fortune 500 companies offer paid parental leave,” said Kaufman, who led the study published online in Community, Work & Family in August. Kaufman, who also conducted extensive research on parental leave guidelines, and Petts, who co-authored the study, found that 72% of companies were able to get detailed information on parental leave guidelines. But only 17% of all Fortune 500 companies surveyed in their research give fathers and mothers the same amount of paid parental leave.
Of the companies that offer paid parental leave, half offer mothers at least twice as much leave as fathers. That equates to an average of about 10 weeks vacation for mothers and five weeks for fathers, says Petts.
Understand the importance of fathers
All of this is based on the Mad Men-era idea that women can take time off after having a baby because they have a husband who is the breadwinner, says John Badalament, program director for the paternity project at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. It ignores the modern reality of women in the workforce and the science that supports the powerful impact of the fathers involved.
“The hard research is that fathers make a huge difference in their early years,” Badalament points out. “The quality of your relationship and the time you spend with your child … this has a huge impact on the child’s development (and) in your marriages.” There is still a gap in understanding the importance of fathers, he says.
Unevenly paid parental leave arrangements usually bring parents into conflict. “Companies that offer fewer guidelines for fathers are doing themselves a great disadvantage – and adding to the fires of gender inequality – by pitting mothers and fathers against each other rather than engaging in research on retention,” says Badalament.
He adds that employers who are family-friendly and offer fair paternity leave policies and who encourage employees to adopt those policies have been shown to have increased employee retention and satisfaction rates, not to mention seen them as more socially responsible will. But workforce fathers often have a far more tense experience when it comes to their perception – and often the reality as well – of what employers expect of them. Experts say that flies fly in the face of a work-home-life balance and are not in harmony with what can and must be with the parents’ fathers.
In her book, Fixing Parental Leave: The Six Month Solution, Kaufman spoke to some fathers about the barriers to taking parental leave. (According to the title of the book, she is ultimately proposing a vacation policy that allows all working parents to take six months off to spend with a new child.)
One father, Gabriel, who worked part-time in a movie theater while attending school, described how he had a sick baby and dealt with an impatient boss. His boss urged him to return to work even though his son was still in the hospital. “If you work part-time, you have no benefits, you have no paternity leave at all,” he told Kaufman. “I was obviously emotionally unavailable in all respects.” He was worried about losing his job for taking time off to be with his newborn son.
Even when men have paid parental leave, they often feel pressure not to take it.
Finn, a doctor, decided to take a two week break and wanted to work part-time for a few more weeks to spend more time with his child. As Kaufman elaborated on in her book, Finn said it didn’t go well with his manager and friend pushing him to return and even contacting him constantly while he was on vacation to come back. “I felt pressured to come to work,” he told Kaufman.
Ultimately, many experts believe that more than just a change in parental leave guidelines is needed. Rather, a cultural change is required if working fathers and working mothers are treated as such – not pigeonholed in one way or another, but supported in everything they do.
Copyright @ 2020 by Michael Schroeder
Michael Schroeder is a freelance writer, former health editor for US News & World Report, and father of four based in Westfield, Indiana. He always took the full paternity leave his employers offered while still wrestling about how to best balance commitments at home and at work. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.