The Unsentimental Capitalist's Case for Daddy Leave

When dads and moms can share the time off, businesses are more likely to retain their female employees.
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Tim Wimborne/Reuters

Let’s get one thing straight: A man's place is in the home, changing diapers. At least for new dads, and at least for a few weeks.

A December Atlantic magazine article by author and New America Foundation fellow Liza Mundy argued that paternity leave could help make both homes and workplaces more equitable.

First, when dads take time off, they learn how to be, well, dads—how to interpret cries and gurgles, kiss boo-boos properly, and deal with bodily fluids in all of their manifestations. And those habits stick for the long-term.

“Roles can harden really quickly,” Mundy said last night during a conversation on the subject with Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC. “When men are given time to do the hard work of bathing and cleaning and diapering, it sets patterns that are remarkably persistent.”

It's further helpful to women when fathers jump off the career ladder for a couple of months and become the sorts of dads who rush home from the office at 6 p.m. to make mac n’ cheese and help put together dioramas. Women with kids currently make roughly 7 to 14 percent less than their childless counterparts, and feminist scholars think part of the reason is that employers assume mothers will “lean out” of the workplace to be the primary caretaker. More daddy leave could erase that discrepancy.

“Paternity leave doesn’t just mean men being more involved at home,” Mundy said. “It means, for better or worse, women being able to put in more paid time at work.”

Silicon Valley companies already heap perks like paternity leave on their employees. But taking time off to care for a baby has traditionally not been an option for blue-collar dads, or really any dads who don’t work at tech firms (hoodie-string-collar?). The only federal law providing for parental leave in the U.S. is the Family Medical Leave Act, under which parents can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave without losing their jobs. The U.S. is one of only four countries in the world without mandatory paid time off for new parents, along with Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.

Map of paid maternity leave. Australia is pink because it added paid parental leave in 2011; the data are from 2009. (International Labor Organization)

Mundy said she quickly encountered one of the primary reasons for this reluctance while she was promoting the article in a radio station interview. A woman who owned a small auto-body shop called in to the show, Mundy said, to say that her company could never afford a six-week leave for any of its workers, male or female.

“She said, ‘we really rely on our workers,’” Mundy recalled. “And there is still a lot of resistance in the workplace.”

It’s true that employers could lose thousands of dollars a year in salaries if both their male and female workers took paid time off to be with kids. But new family leave models pioneered by California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey could help businesses avoid that cost. In those states, employers don’t take a hit when mothers or fathers take leave—instead, their salaries are paid through a fund that employees contribute to. Rhode Island’s system went into effect just this year, and other states are now considering similar proposals.

More fathers took leave after California's law was implemented (purple line). (NBER0

Here’s how Mundy explains it:

In 2002 California became the first U.S. state to guarantee six weeks of paid leave for mothers and fathers alike, financed by a small payroll-tax contribution from eligible workers. Since then, Rhode Island and New Jersey have followed suit with four and six paid weeks, respectively, while other states are taking steps toward similar policies.

In those states, this was made easier by the fact that the short-term disability fund already existed—the parental leave contribution was simply added to it. It still works like disability insurance, except you’re nursing a newborn instead of a broken arm. And, of course, it can be taken by fathers or mothers.

“It came down to these states having the fiscal mechanism that made it easier,” Mundy said.

The change might not come so easily in other states. Washington, for example, passed a parental leave law in 2008 but has delayed its implementation because of budgetary issues.

Despite initial fears, the California program hasn’t been a job-killer, and it’s actually shown to increase the likelihood that mothers would be working nine to 12 months after giving birth.

Mothers working any job after the California leave program went into effect (purple line). (NBER)

It may be hard to find a replacement mechanic or teacher or accountant for six weeks. But when mothers are able to take leave without guilt—and better yet, when fathers are able to share the time off—businesses are more likely to retain their female employees, Mundy argued.

“These bosses are going to be able to hang on to their female workers,” she said. “In the long run, it's going to be easier to keep their women in the workforce.”

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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