Two years ago, when Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced he was taking paternity leave to spend time with his wife and newborn daughter, it was hailed as a breakthrough for paid family leave. Soon after, a rush of press releases from Twitter, Netflix, Microsoft, IKEA, American Express, Amazon and other well-known companies announced more generous policies. Men, they said, would be encouraged to take parental leave as well.
Parental leave, it seemed, was fashionable, even for the hard driving, workaholic men of Silicon Valley and boded well for the rest of Corporate America.
In theory, more men are taking parental leave -- though it has been an incremental process. A study released last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 46 percent more men were taking advantage of family leave after California's Paid Family Leave (PFL) program took effect. However, it should be noted that only 2 percent of men were taking parental leave before the PFL, and that jumped to 3 percent after the program was in place. So, it is not as if men are rushing in droves to take family leave.
Stigma Keeps Men from Taking Family Leave
Even though there are more generous family leave policies in place at many U.S. companies, men still are less likely than women to take advantage of them. Why? In a word: stigma.
Men do not take family leave because they worry about how it looks and that it will have a limiting effect on their careers, earnings potential and job security. Many men do face criticism for taking parental leave, as noted in this Vogue story on the issue. It cites the example of New York Mets player Daniel Murphy who faced fan criticism when he missed two regular season games for paternity leave. When he took 12 weeks off to be with his newborn son, TOMS Shoes CEO Blake Mycoskie was asked by other CEOs, "How are you supposed to lead a company while changing diapers?"
There is also research to back up these anecdotal examples. A 2016 study by Deloitte found that half of employed adults with access to benefits felt men were not encouraged by their organizations to take parental leave. In addition, one-third of those surveyed believed taking leave would jeopardize their position, and a telling 57 percent of men thought employers would think it would show they were not committed to the job. Another 41 percent feared losing out on opportunities.
It is clear, then, that though more opportunities exist for men to take family leave, they worry that doing so will impact their careers.
Men Taking Family Leave Benefits Families, Companies, Women, Society
As a society, we need to do a better job of encouraging men to take family leave. The stigma and other roadblocks must be cleared.
Why? Research overwhelmingly supports the positive and widespread impact of paid family leave. During the 2016 election cycle, CNN looked at more than 20 studies on the impact of paid family leave on the health of children and families. That research revealed paid family leave:
- Reduces infant mortality by as much as 10%
- Increases likelihood of infants receiving well-baby care visits and vaccinations
- Increases the rate and duration of breastfeeding which in turn, leads to healthier children
- Reduces symptoms of post-partum depression in new mothers and an overall boost to mental health
While this research focuses on mothers, other studies link benefits to fathers taking paternity leave. A policy paper from the U.S. Department of Labor lists many of these and cites research from other countries showing "fathers who take more paternity leave have higher satisfaction with parenting and increased engagement in caring for their children." Another study links paternity leave with higher cognitive abilities in children.
For women, there are obvious benefits to men taking paternity leave including, and perhaps most important, support with child rearing and running a household. However, there are likely other benefits. Ending the stigma around family leave for men would go a long way to eliminate the stigma for women, too. If family leave were made gender-neutral and something everyone takes, then women would also be more likely to take it. True gender equality in the workplace benefits everyone, as this recent study showing it would add $4.3 trillion to the U.S. economy clearly demonstrates.
Companies need not fear a negative impact from offering paid parental leave, either. It can actually be beneficial for the bottom line, as well as recruitment and retention. A study looking at the impact of California's PFL program found that after it took effect, the majority of employers reported either a "positive effect" or "no noticeable effect" on productivity (89 percent), profitability/performance (91%), turnover (96%), and employee morale (99%).
Fighting for the Right to Paid Family Leave
Of course, not everyone has access to paid parental leave. When they do, it might not be entirely adequate. The federal Family & Medical Leave Act and the California Family Rights Act, for example, only provides for unpaid leave. It also only applies to employees of companies with 50 or more employees. And though a significant step forward, state paid leave laws in states such as California do not offer full reimbursement of salary loss for leave periods. While the California statute does not explicitly offer job protection upon return from leave, federal and state law prohibit retaliation or discrimination against a man who chooses to exercise his rights under that statute, which protects employees of companies with over 50 employees. For employees at smaller companies, the law is less protective, but a strong argument can be made that retaliation illegal and that therefore, men should not forego taking paid leave out of fear of losing their jobs. Before making a decision as to whether you will be protected after applying for paid family leave, you should always talk to a lawyer.
Through litigation, men, like women, are taking action. Former CNN correspondent Josh Levs sued the news organization alleging its parental leave policies discriminated against biological fathers. CNN gave men two weeks of leave while offering mothers, adoptive parents, and same-sex partners up to 10 weeks of paid time off after the birth, adoption or surrogate birth of a baby. Levs and CNN settled the matter. In 2013, the Dechert law firm settled a case with a former lawyer who alleged he faced retaliation after taking paternity leave. He blamed the firm's "macho culture."
As these cases demonstrate, litigation can be a powerful tool for both men and women in securing and protecting their rights in the workplace. Whether brought by an individual or as part of a class action, it is often what's needed to highlight what's wrong in an organization and fix it.
The impact of progressive paid family leave policies on men, women, children and our country is too important to let advancements slip. Even though CEOs such as Mark Zuckerberg feel they can take paternity leave, many men - and women - still do not. Our work must continue.