When Chris Renshaw told his co-workers that he was planning to take six weeks of paternity leave, they responded with overwhelming support. “It’s definitely looked at in a good light,” says Renshaw, 28, who lives in Northern California and was taking infant-care classes to hone his diapering and baby-bathing skills. “People have said, ‘That’s a great idea—take as much as you can. It’s time that you can be with your child.’ ”
This would hardly be surprising if Renshaw worked for one of the legions of progressive tech companies in the Bay Area, but he’s a firefighter. His decision to take paternity leave, and his fellow firefighters’ enthusiastic reaction, is a sign of a new phase in our never-ending quest for work-life harmony.
As usual, California is at the vanguard of this shift. While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act has long granted up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to mothers and fathers in large and medium-size workplaces, 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 Silicon Valley, many tech giants have gone above and beyond the government mandate: Google offers men seven weeks of paid leave; Yahoo, eight; and Reddit and Facebook, a generous 17.
Paternity leave has also begun to enter the corporate and cultural mainstream. According to a study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family, which surveyed men in a number of Fortune 500 companies, most new fathers now take at least some time off after the birth of a baby, though few depart the workplace for more than two weeks. In England, Prince William took two weeks’ leave from his job as a military search-and-rescue helicopter pilot when his son, George, was born. Even Major League Baseball has formalized paternity leave—albeit three days’ worth—for players, partnering with Dove’s line for men in a pro-fatherhood campaign called Big League Dads.
But here’s what men may not realize: While paid paternity leave may feel like an unexpected gift, the biggest beneficiaries aren’t men, or even babies. In the long run, the true beneficiaries of paternity leave are women, and the companies and nations that benefit when women advance. In October, the World Economic Forum released its latest global gender-gap report, showing that countries with the strongest economies are those that have found ways to further women’s careers, close the gender pay gap, and keep women—who in most nations are now better educated than men—tethered to the workforce after they become mothers. One strikingly effective strategy used by the highest-ranking countries is paternity leave, which, whatever else it may accomplish, is a brilliant and ambitious form of social engineering: a behavior-modification tool that has been shown to boost male participation in the household, enhance female participation in the labor force, and promote gender equity in both domains.
The genius of paternity leave is that it shapes domestic and parenting habits as they are forming. While most mothers in the United States now work, many women still see their careers suffer after they became parents, in part because they end up shouldering the bulk of the domestic load—a phenomenon the sociologist Arlie Hochschild has dubbed the “second shift.” A 2007 study found that 60 percent of professional women who stopped working reported that they were largely motivated by their husbands’ unavailability to share housework and child-care duties. Paternity leave is a chance to intervene at what one study called “a crucial time of renegotiation”: those early, sleep-deprived weeks of diaper changes and midnight feedings, during which couples fall into patterns that turn out to be surprisingly permanent.
Maternity leave, on the other hand, has mostly medical origins. As early as the late 19th century in certain countries, taking a leave of absence was compulsory before and after birth. After World War II, some European countries used compulsory-leave policies to funnel women from the factories and offices they’d filled during the war back into what was seen as their proper domestic sphere. But the medical benefits are real; by the 1970s, as the ranks of working women rose, maternity leave was increasingly understood as a way to safeguard the health of women and children, giving mothers time to recover from childbirth and take babies to those early, frequent doctor appointments. Studies have confirmed that when women take maternity leave, babies get breast-fed longer and infant-mortality rates go down.
In recent decades, the rationale has expanded, thanks in part to adoptive parents who made the sensible case that not giving birth to your child doesn’t invalidate the need to spend intimate time with a small, vulnerable person who has just joined your family. This crusade helped pave the way for dads, encouraging the idea that leave is as much about forming attachments as recovering from medical trauma. California’s six weeks are known as “bonding leave” (mothers who give birth can add this to a period of paid disability leave).
Somewhat paradoxically, paternity leave has also evolved as a way for progressive countries to correct for an overly enthusiastic embrace of paid leave for mothers. We tend to think of Scandinavia and northern Europe as exemplars of work-family balance, but a tangle of warring policies in these regions has led to a few backfires. In their pursuit of an egalitarian workplace (and higher fertility rates), countries like Sweden and Germany have at times offered women more than a year of maternity leave—sometimes quite a bit more—a strategy that can fortify the glass ceiling rather than shatter it. Anticipating that women will disappear for long periods of time, managers become reluctant to hire them into senior positions, and female workers are shunted (or shunt themselves) into lower-paying sectors. Among labor economists, overly long maternity leaves are now recognized as creating a barrier to pay equity. At home, meanwhile, long leaves result in women doing most of the housework and child care.