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Guest post from Michael Schroeder
Professionals working in the United States who start or grow families face a unique challenge. Unlike their counterparts in all other industrialized countries, Americans do not have federally guaranteed paid leave to be with their newborns.
Employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year and still have a job to return to under the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. But not all workers qualify for this, and many of them just aren’t able to take this leave. (FMLA allows states to provide more coverage than federal law, and a handful of states have their own provisions, but only California, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island offer paid family and medical leave.)
As a result, parents are heavily dependent on the paid parental leave policies of the employers who offer it. But the vast majority of employers do not offer paid parental leave; and those which offer much less paid leave to fathers than to mothers. This, experts point out, creates additional hardship for working fathers and mothers.
“I think these policies imply that mothers are and should be primarily responsible for the care of children and the education of children,” says Richard Petts, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Ball State University who studied close parental leave policies. He adds that the imbalance makes it even more difficult for fathers to take time off, as they can face the stigma, as well as the career penalties that mothers face. Others say such an imbalance in policies providing parental leave leaves working mothers without support and sends the message that fathers are not needed.
This is because a traditional male-centered employer model treats men not as working parents but as employees with no family obligations. Women who take leave may also miss raises, advancement opportunities, or for those who take extended leave, have difficulty re-entering the workforce successfully or find themselves underemployed when they do. In parental leave policies, women are generally viewed by default as the primary caregivers. And experts say these company policies, by offering less parental leave for men, assume that their partners – usually working mothers – will take on the lion’s share of childcare responsibilities.
Survey data therefore shows that new fathers tend to take only a week off after childbirth, while women take less than three months. Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic is also not a solution for dads or moms, given the convenient (read: distraction-free parenting) care newborns need.
A recent study that provides insight into gender disparities in parental leave looked at examples in the industry: Fortune 500 companies. These US companies with the highest incomes have set the bar for all others to follow. . As such, Gayle Kaufman, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Petts and David College, found it worthwhile to assess the precedent set by these large companies with their parental leave policies, and more specifically regarding the gender differences in these policies.
“The good news is that a majority of Fortune 500 companies offer some form of paid parental leave,” notes Kaufman, who led the study published online in Community, work and family in August. Kaufman, who has also done extensive research on parental leave policies, and Petts, co-author of the research, found that 72% of companies they were able to get detailed information about had parental leave policies. But only 17% of all Fortune 500 companies they researched offer the same amount of paid parental leave to fathers and mothers.
Among the companies that offer paid parental leave, half offer at least twice as much leave to mothers as to fathers. That equates, on average, to about 10 weeks off for moms and five weeks for dads, says Petts.
Understanding the importance of dads
It all rests on a Mad Men“First idea that women can take time off after childbirth because they have a husband who is the breadwinner,” says John Badalament, director of programs for The Fatherhood Project at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. It ignores the modern reality of women in the workforce and the science that supports the powerful impact of the fathers involved.
“The hard research is that fathers in the early years make a huge difference,” Badalament points out. “The quality of their relationship and the time they spend with their baby… it has a huge impact on the development of the child (and) on their marriage.” There is still a gap in understanding the importance of fathers, he says.
The generally gender unequal paid parental leave policies put parents at odds. “Companies that offer less stringent policies for fathers are doing themselves a terrible disservice – aside from fueling fires of gender inequality – by pitting mothers and fathers against each other, instead of ‘review research on job retention,’ says Badalament.
He adds that employers who are family-friendly and offer fair paternal leave policies and take the initiative to encourage employees to use these policies have been shown to increase employee retention and satisfaction rates. , not to mention being seen as more socially responsible. But fathers in the workforce often have a much more strained experience of their perceptions – and often the reality – of what employers expect of them. Experts say it goes against a work-life balance and is out of step with the parents fathers want and need to be.
For his book, Repairing parental leave: the six-month solution, Kaufman spoke with some fathers about the barriers to taking parental leave. (According to the book’s title, she ultimately suggests a leave policy that allows all working parents to take six months off to spend with a new child.)
A father, Gabriel, who worked part-time in a movie theater while going to school, explained having a sick baby and dealing with an impatient boss. His boss pressured him to return to work even though his son was still in the hospital. “With part-time work you don’t get any benefit, you don’t get any paternity leave at all,” he told Kaufman. “I was obviously very emotionally unavailable to work in every sense of the word. He feared losing his job for taking time off to be with his newborn son.
Even when men have paid parental leave, they often feel pressured not to take it.
Finn, a doctor, chose to take two weeks off and wanted to work part-time for several more weeks to spend more time with his child. As Kaufman detailed in his book, Finn said it didn’t go well with his supervisor and friend pushing him back, even contacting him continually while he was on leave to return. “I felt compelled to come to work,” he told Kaufman.
Ultimately, what is needed, according to many experts, is not just a change in parental leave policies. Rather, a culture change is needed where working fathers and mothers are treated as such – not cataloged in one capacity or another, but supported in everything they do.
Copyright @ 2020 by Michael Schroeder
Michael Schroeder is a freelance writer, former health editor at US News & World Report and a father of four in Westfield, Indiana. He has always taken all of the paternity leave offered by his employers, while striving to find the best balance between his family and professional obligations. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.