It sounds like a fair, gender-blind idea for American businesses: offering paid leave not to moms specifically but to a baby’s “primary caregiver.” Unfortunately, in reality, this policy is often used to reinforce old stereotypes—and in the end can discourage men from taking leave.
Many American businesses have leave policies that are stuck in the past. Families have evolved, and dads take on much more responsibility at home. But workplaces tend to offer much more generous leave for moms than for dads, pushing moms to stay at home and be caregivers, while men are pushed to stay in the office and be the primary earners.
On the surface, “primary caregiver” benefits should change this and give families real choices. Adobe, for example, offers 16 weeks of paid leave to primary caregivers, defined as parents who take “primary responsibility for care of the child during the typical Adobe work hours.” An employee must sign an affidavit averring that he or she is the “primary” caregiver. EY (formerly Ernst & Young) offers six weeks of paid leave to any primary caregiver, and two for the other partner.
But what’s written on paper and what occurs in practice are very different. Dads who want to be equal partners at home face tremendous stigma in the workplace. Many men have been demoted or even fired for taking time off to care for loved ones, including their newborn children, a series of studies overseen by a working group at the Center for WorkLife Law found.
This is why even among the minority of American men who get some paid paternity leave, most don’t use it up. It’s tough enough for many men to even acknowledge being caregivers. So declaring themselves the “primary” caregivers is often completely out of the question.
“By forcing men to prove they are primary caregivers in order to ‘earn’ paternity leave, (a company) subverts the man’s already difficult struggle to obtain some semblance of work-family balance,” attorney Keith Cunningham-Parmeter wrote in the Stanford Law Review. A man who “musters the courage” to ask “will have to overcome a policy that is predicated on the assumption that parental leave is woman’s work.”
And that’s the best-case scenario, when the policies are written to treat men and women at the company the same, at least in theory. But often the primary-caregiver benefits are written in such a way that they’re not even available to dads who are partnered with a child’s biological mom (perhaps the most common situation).
I faced such a policy at CNN in 2013. It allowed for 10 paid weeks of leave for biological moms (under the company’s disability leave) and for “primary caregivers” in cases of adoption or surrogacy. When I informed the company that I would be the primary caregiver for my daughter, corporate parent Time Warner said no. (I took legal action. The company has since updated its policy, making it much better for dads like me and for moms after a birth. We recently settled.)
But beyond problems with how such policies are written and carried out, there is something about the idea that a child has one parent who is a “primary” caregiver and another who is secondary that is startlingly outdated. About 60 percent of families with children at home have two working parents who share caregiving responsibilities. Workplaces should be doing what they can to encourage an even distribution of those responsibilities, not encoding the idea that one parent will do more.
“I regularly counsel employers not to set up [primary-caregiver benefits],” says Cynthia Calvert, president of Workforce 21C, a consultancy that helps companies update their policies. “It reinforces the idea that there is one main parent. It also has the effect of excluding men and is difficult for employers to administer,” she told me in an interview for my book All In.
All this hurts both men and women. Men can’t get time off to bond with their new babies and women are hampered by a culture “that automatically assumes they are the primary caregiver for a newborn,” Cunningham-Parmeter wrote in a study of law firms. “Women who do not take maternity leave may be viewed as suspect mothers; at the same time, women who take time off to be with their newborns face the opposite presumption that they are somehow less ‘committed’ to the firm.” In other words, women are damned either way.
Some businesses may feel that limiting a benefit to “primary caregivers” helps ensure it won’t be used as an excuse to simply have paid time off. But this fear is unfounded. First, the business doesn’t gain anything from insisting on the “primary” designation. If leave is for caregiving, it must be used for caregiving.
Meanwhile, policies that don’t turn on these distinctions are proven to benefit the bottom line. Paid family leave helps companies attract and retain high-quality employees who are happier and more productive.
Of course, most companies offer no parental leave at all, let alone for “primary caregivers.” More than half of companies offer some paid leave to women, but usually through disability. Only 14 percent of businesses offer any paid paternity leave. Federal law requires 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but the statute doesn’t apply to about 40 percent of workers, and one in five companies admits to not fully complying.
There is reason for hope. In recent weeks, companies such as Netflix, Microsoft, Virgin, and Johnson & Johnson have made news for establishing generous paid parental-leave programs for some employees, with no insistence on “primary” caregiving. Still, the overall trend is moving backward. In recent years, businesses that offer paternity leave have been cutting back.
To see how alive and well the old ways of thinking are, consider a recent Miami Herald article in which local CEOs were asked to weigh in on the idea of paternity leave. While some expressed support, others were firmly against it. Two said paternity leave should not exist. One said it should be allowed “only for one week to support the childbearing wife.” Another argued for it “only when mothers with medical reasons are not able to take care of their baby.”
Many people in my generation grew up believing in gender equality. We were recipients of the long struggle waged by women, and we thought that when we became parents we'd be parents equally. But then we got jobs, had kids, and discovered the depressing truth: The American workplace still hasn’t grown up.
This story is part of our Next America: Workforce project, which is supported by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.