Paternity Leave: Establishing a “New Normal” for Gender Equality in the Workplace

Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google Plus Share this Page

Even as the U.S. continues to trail behind virtually all other major industrialized nations in its maternity leave offerings, paternity leave is becoming increasingly popular among employers and employees stateside. In 2016 there had been several high profile examples of big steps forward on paternity leave offerings.

Perhaps most notably that of Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg who took two months off—only half of the four paid months of leave that Facebook offers to new parents, regardless of gender.

While for most employers even the thought of trying to implement such a generous parental leave program is far beyond the realm of possibility, there is no doubt that paid parental leave, and yes, paternity leave is part of that, is an important piece of the benefits package that many employers are using to attract and retain the best and brightest employees to their organization.

What do employers offer?

When it comes to paternity leave, what employers offer to their male employees varies widely globally, nationally, and locally.

Globally:

In a 2016 international study of parental leave by Mercer, only 24% of employers worldwide offer parental leave regardless of gender for the “primary caregiver”, while a full 40% more (64% in all) provide this time off to their female employees only.

Nationally:

Here in the U.S., the differences in parental leave options between the genders persist as well. Like maternity leave, which is federally mandated (for many, but not all U.S. employers) for 12 weeks (unpaid) following the birth of a child under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), there technically is a statutory requirement allowing new fathers to take this time off in the U.S. However, when it comes to receiving payment during this time, men are still at a significant disadvantage, as they would not qualify for any type of short-term disability, one of the most commonly used forms of compensation provided during FMLA following the birth of a child for women.

Locally:

There is growing momentum at the city and statewide level for local governments to require PAID parental leave programs, with the Obama Administration also pushing hard for paid leave for federal employees. Most of these programs only cover pay during part of that 12 week FMLA timeframe, but the emphasis on either parent being able to take that time-off is key.

ERC Data:

As interest around paternity policies has increased, ERC members have shared with us a wide variety of paternity leave policies in 2016. ERC’s own research on the subject revealed that just over half (53%) of the participants in our Parental Leave Policies & Practices Survey formally provide their male employees with paternity leave.

An additional 15% of the sample provide this opportunity for new fathers to take leave strictly through their FMLA mechanism, although they do not necessarily label this time of as “paternity leave”.

Most formal policies simply offer a few extra days off (typically anywhere from 3 to 10 work days) for this purpose without deducting any hours or days from other sources of time off such as PTO banks, vacation, or sick time.

When asked about who actually utilizes this time off, it does appear that many new fathers do take the time allocated to them as formal “paternity leave”—again typically a short time period that is paid.

What the data did not show was any examples of male employees taking significant chunks of time above and beyond these few days. As pointed out previously, without mechanisms designed to support new mothers, i.e. short-term disability, in place for financial support, it is not particularly surprising that locally men are not choosing to extend their parental leave time using unpaid FMLA.

What do employees (really) want?

Yes, there is a big push, mostly among Millenial employees, towards more equal parental leave policies between the genders. And, yes, on paper these policies can look and sound great to many potential or even existing employees. But, according to 2016 research, when the time comes to actually cash in and take that sought after leave for a new baby, societal norms tend to get in the way.

Far more men than women feel that in taking time-off to care for their newborn, they are jeopardizing their career path in a substantial way.

Wording the question a bit differently, other researchers asked employees about whether or not their organization’s culture supports parental leave, but the results are very much the same. In most cases, men are simply not comfortable taking paternity leave (or at least that is their perception of what their company and peers feel), even when it is offered directly to them.

As a result, what we see in the U.S. is a lack of uptake for these paternity policies. For employers, this may sound like a win-win situation. “Offer” the paternity leave, knowing they probably won’t use it, so it doesn’t cost the company anything in the end. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

As with most employee retention strategies, this is a marathon, not a sprint—just because a new dad doesn’t take the time-off when it is offered, doesn’t guarantee his long term happiness at your organization.

Similar principles apply for any flexible workplace type policy. If employees aren’t comfortable enough to use them, the policies don’t really have the positive impact on your employees that you were looking to achieve by putting them on the books in the first place.

However, paternity leave is a particularly sticky dilemma, because the cultural norms that your organization may need to move towards internally in order to improve uptake (and that elusive longer term happiness, retention, etc.) are much bigger than just your internal politics. Entrenched gender norms about women as the caregiver and men as the breadwinner of the family run deep, particularly here in the U.S. Even many Millenial men who may express a desire to break away from these traditional roles, are finding that setting a new normal in gender equality in the workplace isn’t always the easiest path to take.

View ERC's Parental Leave Policies and Practices Survey Results

This report summarizes the results of ERC’s survey of organizations in Northeast Ohio on practices related to parental leave policies & practices.

View the Results