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How Can We Make Paternity Leave Better?

Topics: Work Culture

Paternity leave benefits — those that provide time off for new fathers — vary across the globe. In the U.S. there are no standard laws or guidelines for companies to provide paid time off for fathers (or mothers, for that matter). But with a society so focused on wellness and the family unit, you’d think we’d have a better grasp on benefits that truly serve both those parts of our lives.

So, how can we make paternity leave better for everyone?

More Uniformity: Paternity Leave Benefits Come in All Shapes and Sizes

Around the world, countries have chosen to either provide paid paternity leave or not. In 2018, UNICEF released data on parental leave policies, with the majority of the countries in Europe and South America, as well as Canada, Australia and Russia all offering some form of paid leave for both parents. Conversely, there are just two nations in the entire world with no parental leave laws: Papua New Guinea and the United States. In other words, these two counties do not legislate any kind of mandatory paid leave for mothers or fathers when a child is born. You can check out the different policies in this interactive map based on the 2018 data.  [Note: As of 2019, Suriname now provides maternity leave benefits, so the map linked above is a little out of date.]

So there’s issues with the fact that the U.S. is being left behind by nearly every other country on the planet. But we’re really looking at the problem with paternity leave benefits here, so let’s get on with it.

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Some countries are taking a nibble out of the problem, offering a few days to new dads. Others, like Germany, offer impressive leave benefits that a mother or father can take until their child is three years old. This provides them with income while they take care of a child and protection that their job will still be available for them when they’re ready to come back.

Make it Paid: The Family Leave Act is Different Than Paid Leave

You might be thinking back to a coworker or two who you swear took time off to be with their new child. And the U.S. does provide some protection for your job, should you take time off to care for a child or even an ailing parent. It’s the the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and it was signed into law in 1993. It does provide a way for some employees to take off up to 12 weeks in a calendar year to be a full-time caregiver.

However, their leave is not required to be paid time off, so workers could be left trying to find a way to have an income during those 12 weeks. According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Labor, 46% of those who could take time off with FMLA do not because they would be unable to replace that income.

The FMLA also does not apply to employees at a company with less than 50 workers, like so many small businesses across the country. And you have to have worked there for at least 12 months and 1,250 hours during that time (about 31 normal work weeks). Here’s a quick fact sheet on FMLA requirements.

So while for some workers in the U.S. their jobs are protected, wages are not provided during leave. And for those working for small businesses, or who are their own boss, or who have just changed jobs for one reason or another, the FMLA is of no use to them.

“The biggest challenges for new parents when it comes to paternity leave can be that they are only able to take unpaid time, there is not a policy in place, or that there is a perceived stigma around men taking time off,” says Ronni Zehavi, CEO of HR tech platform Hibob. “Having a child is expensive, and many families cannot afford to live without one parent’s income.”

And let’s maybe also recognize that a mom’s wages are typically going to be less than a dad’s wages anyway, thanks to the gender wage gap. Read more about how the gap still exists in 2019 at the PayScale Gender Wage Gap study.

Thankfully, some states and municipalities (including California, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington)  are enacting their own paid leave legislation, and there is some stirring for a paid leave act to be voted on at the federal level.

Make it Reasonable: Parenthood is a Full-time Job Already

New parents don’t typically get a lot of sleep. Either their new infant is up at different hours, or there’s just too much to do after baby goes to bed (like remembering to feed yourself and wash your clothes on occasion). Yet, we expect those who are parents and full-time office workers to just shake off their exhaustion and jump back in to their jobs full-speed. One way we could make paternity leave better, is to allow workers to ease out and then ease back in to work as a matter of policy.

One new dad I spoke with who works as attorney (he asked his name not be used), said that employers should have better expectations on allowing new parents to take true time off (and ramp up when they came back).

Recognizing the bookends of the leave when evaluating the employees overall productivity, not just the term of the leave [would be great], he said. “This is very applicable to lawyers whose productivity is measured by billable hours, which can be hard to come by if you have to turn down work, or attract new projects, in the time before or after your leave.”

He also found that once he “left” for paternity leave, he wasn’t 100% checked out of his normal workload.

“I was encouraged to bring work home at the beginning and start working before it ended to avoid dropping in my billable hours,” he said.

Plus, there was a downside for being out of the office for so many weeks, especially when it came time to calculate yearly time “at the company.”

“If you take paternity those weeks are taken out of consideration for bonuses, raises, promotions, etc.,” he said. “An employer should go beyond that and recognize the fact that there is lost productivity leading up to/ returning from paternity leave.”

Anticipate the Complexities of Parenting: There Is No One Path

While your birth plan may be agreed upon in advance, any parent out there can tell you that all plans are made to be broken when you have a baby. Complexities in birthing or even just sustaining new life can change day to day and hour to hour. One dad’s expectation of a “normal” birth and a quick return to the status quo can be dashed in a second.

Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit and new father to daughter Olympia, found himself in such a position when his wife, tennis champion Serena Williams, had complications that nearly took her life during their child’s delivery. He wrote about his experiences with parenthood and his own company’s paternity leave policy in the New York Times.

“Serena and I were lucky enough to have help at home and many other advantages working in our favor,” Ohanian wrote. “But even with all of that privilege, including my ability to focus solely on my family and not worry about keeping my job, it was still incredibly difficult. Nothing could have dragged me away from my wife and daughter in those hours, days and weeks — and I’m grateful that I was never forced to choose between my family and my job.”

He wrote that he has a newfound appreciation for the dual lives that working parents must face, even with his ability to take six weeks paid leave (a policy he freely admits he did not come up with, but gladly took advantage of). Ohanian is also keenly aware that as the boss, he doesn’t have to worry about what his superiors will think of him taking time off to be a dad. But that’s not what everyone else experiences.

“Our sense of duty is often fear-based: Men assume their bosses will frown on paternity leave, so we don’t dare to go there,” he wrote. “A recent study conducted by my friends at PL+US, a national paid-leave advocacy group, found that 84 percent of expectant fathers plan to take leave, but only half believe their employer supports them. Nearly a third of dads think that taking leave could negatively impact their career. We could miss out on a promotion. We could become obsolete. We could get fired. Career fear is powerful.”

As our family’s welfare fluctuates with sudden emergencies of health or income, so too must our leave policies be flexible enough to anticipate any and all possibilities, while still protecting our careers.

Reach Parity: Finding Equality in Gender Roles at Home

There’s a big problem in gender roles at home, from moms being saddled with all the “baby stuff” to dads falling into that “breadwinner” role where they’re working all the time (even on no sleep thanks to a newborn at home).

“To achieve gender equality both in the workplace and the home, it’s essential for men to have an equal chance to be there with their newborn babies,” says Jody Heymann, founding director of World Policy Analysis Center.

Finland, that country with some of the most generous paternity leave benefits, also has some of the lowest use by new dads. They’re leaving those benefits on the table and staying in their normal work routine, which means they’re not home during the day to help out with the baby.

“While paid maternity leave has been offered by companies for many years, in some instances, paternity leave is not available at all or is a very new perk, in part due to the associated stereotypes and older, more traditional gender roles,” says Zehavi. “Although these stereotypes are becoming less prominent in the new world of work, discrimination against men who take paternity leave is still present in many cases, as we saw with JPMorgan earlier this year. Combatting this is still a challenge for many fathers and may deter them from taking advantage of this benefit even when it is available.”

How to fix it? Find equality at work and at home, starting with leave policies. It can be as easy as changing the way you label the leave benefits.

“At Hibob, we have built the option for “parental leave” into our platform, rather than using a gender-specific term like maternal or paternal leave,” notes Zehavi. “This gives the companies we work with the ability to remove bias from their parental leave benefits and show that it is something that all employees can take advantage of, regardless of gender. Companies following this approach are helping to remove stigmas and show there is equal opportunity for all employees to take leave.”

It’s somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy that if men don’t see other fathers take parental leave, then they don’t feel like they’re allowed to truly take it themselves. The more men who take paternity leave, the more who will follow in their footsteps.

One recent survey of over a thousand working parents in the U.S. found that, “Most parents said they would have taken a longer parental leave if they had seen co-workers do so (72 percent of men and 56 percent of women). And more than half of all respondents (57 percent) said they would have treated their leave differently if they’d had manager support,” as noted by the Society for Human Resource Management. 

To change the problem, we have to truly change expectations of what’s normal and what’s appropriate for new parents. Above all, we should encourage parents to be the best parents they can be, with the most support we can give them.


Are you a dad who had great (or bad) paternity leave benefits at work? We want to hear from you. Share your tips in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

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