Domestic Affairs January/February 2014

Daddy Track: The Case for Paternity Leave

It makes men more involved at home, women more involved at work, and workplaces friendlier for all parents.

The policy has achieved many of the hoped-for long-term outcomes, chief among them more fluidity in who does what around the house. Previous studies found that fathers who take paternity leave are more likely, a year or so down the road, to change diapers, bathe their children, read them bedtime stories, and get up at night to tend to them. Patnaik’s study confirmed this; looking at time-use diaries, she found that men who were eligible for the new leave—whether or not they took it—ended up spending more time later on routine chores like shopping and cooking.

If these changes sound minor, they aren’t. As men have taken on more domestic work over the past 20 or so years, they have gravitated toward the fun stuff, like hanging out with the kids, rather than the boring but inescapable duties, like boiling the ravioli or vacuuming Cheerios out of the family-room carpet. The University of Oregon sociologist Scott Coltrane has noted that when men share “routine repetitive chores,” women feel they are being treated fairly and are less likely to become depressed.

In Quebec, women whose husbands were eligible for the new leave were more likely to return to their original employers and were more likely to work full-time, resulting in their spending “considerably” more hours on paid work. (When women work full-time, it alters the home division of labor more than when they work part-time.) And as women were spending more time working for pay, men were spending less: the Quebec paternity-leave policy resulted in a small but long-term decrease in fathers’ time at work.

Working fathers increasingly report feeling more work-family conflict than working mothers do.

This finding hints at the possibility that paternity leave could erode the fabled “fatherhood wage premium.” In the early 20th century, employers explicitly and even proudly paid married men more than they paid single men—and much more than they paid women—in recognition of the fact that husbands were the conduit by which families got fed. Even after employers dropped these formal policies, fathers have continued to enjoy a wage bonus, either because they are seen as being more motivated and reliable, or because they work longer hours, or both. But Patnaik’s study suggests that paternity leave might give men a new mind-set, prompting them to trade more money for more time at home, more flexibility, or both. In this way, it could make men behave more like women.

Which points to a core goal of many workplace-equity policies: spreading the parenthood stigma around. Widespread paternity-leave plans raise the possibility that bosses will stop looking askance at the résumé of a 20‑something female applicant, or at least apply the same scrutiny to a similar male applicant.

While it’s too soon to tell whether California’s, New Jersey’s, and Rhode Island’s paid-paternity-leave programs will be as transformative as Quebec’s, the early signs are positive. Since California instituted its program, the percentage of “bonding leaves” claimed by men has risen from 18.7 in 2005 and 2006 to 31.3 in 2012 and 2013. A study by the economist Eileen Appelbaum and the sociologist Ruth Milkman showed that initial concerns that the California law would be a “job killer” were unfounded, and that workplaces have figured out effective and creative ways to cover for leave-taking parents. The biggest hurdle seems to be getting the word out, particularly among lower-income families that could benefit enormously from the program. (Part of the beauty of the California policy is that it extends leave to men in non-white-collar jobs.)

News stories and conventional wisdom suggest that men still feel judged when they take paternity leave, so I was struck, while speaking with a New York City dads’ group, by how many of its members had received positive reinforcement from bosses and colleagues after announcing their decision to take leave. A different study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family has found that for men, joining the “parents club” tends to have positive professional consequences: fathers are more readily permitted to adjust their work hours than are mothers, who are often viewed as less committed and less promotable. The study also found that men tend not to ask for formal work-life policies; they use “stealth” methods instead, like slipping out to coach soccer practice. Part of the leniency toward working dads, of course, may be due to the fact that they simply haven’t asked for much.

But now they’re asking. Rich Gallagher, who works in public relations in New York, had a supportive employer when he took his first leave. But he’d switched jobs by the time his second child was born, and found that taking time off “soured” his standing and won him dirty looks from colleagues. He left that job, and even now that he doesn’t need paternity leave anymore, he looks at potential employers’ leave policies as a benchmark for whether they are committed to work-life balance.

Most men who take leave, it’s important to note, don’t take anything close to six weeks, and many are obliged to use vacation time for part or all of whatever time they do take. In the U.S., we are only just starting to wrap our minds around longer paternity leave. “Two weeks for men may be the best we can hope for in the medium term,” says Scott Behson, a management professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, who blogs about fatherhood. He suggests a compromise in which men receive two weeks of paid leave, followed by a flexible schedule that would enable them to take a paid day or two off each week. Companies like Deloitte, which offers three to eight weeks of paid paternity leave, are finding that many men prefer to stagger their time off, taking a few weeks when the baby is born, for example, and then more time when their wives go back to work.

Options like these may help to address the somewhat surprising fact that, regardless of whatever plaudits or premiums they may or may not enjoy in the office, working fathers increasingly report feeling more work-family conflict than working mothers do. A 2011 report concluded that the most-conflicted men are those who are stuck working long hours yet feel they should be at home.

In another sign of how paternity leave can narrow the gap between working mothers and fathers, more than one man I spoke with had made a decision long familiar to mothers who find themselves trapped in the office after bedtime too many nights. Upon the birth of his first child, Lance Somerfeld planned to take paternity leave from his teaching job at a big elementary school in the Bronx. He looked forward to being home, and his wife’s career was going well. As they thought about the future, they reckoned that child-care costs would eat up most of his after-tax salary, so he decided to extend his leave indefinitely. When Somerfeld informed the school that he would not be returning, at least not anytime soon, his principal went on the PA system and announced, “Mr. Somerfeld will be leaving us next year to become a modern man!”

*Due to an editing error, this article originally stated that New Jersey and Rhode Island offered 12 and 13 weeks of paid leave, respectively.

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Liza Mundy is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family.

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