The call for paternity leave continues to build steam. In Canada, the federal government introduced a new ‘Use it or Lose it’ leave for non-birth parents aimed specifically at fathers. It’s eligible to parents of babies born on or after March 17, 2019. Last month, Spain took steps to equalize leave for fathers as well as mothers. In the US, too, there is growing support to extend the call for a national leave program to fathers as well as mothers.
These efforts follow in the footsteps of Sweden, Iceland, Finland and other countries that tout the benefits of dedicated paternity leaves. Benefits that are equal to the ones a family gets when moms take leave, including increases to personal and economic well-being.
Just as mothers do during maternity leave, paternity leave is a chance for fathers to learn how to care for their baby. They learn to decipher each of baby’s cries, how to change a diaper and much more. This time builds their confidence in caring for their children that they will continue to develop as their children grow.
This time together also strengthens the bond between father and child, which has been found to benefit children’s development outcomes. This means fewer behavioral problems, improved cognitive test scores and performance in school, and positive mental health outcomes.
Yet, on top of all these incredible benefits, paternity leave has the opportunity to give a great big push toward gender equality. Here’s how:
Better balance at home
When fathers take paternity leave and their partners return to work – even if it’s for a short period of time – couples naturally renegotiate household roles. Caregiving and domestic duties no longer are the exclusive responsibility of mothers. There’s also a greater appreciation of what’s involved in being a parent and managing a household. This creates a permanent, more equal balance between men and women at home.
Jump start your return to work
Maternity leave affords time for fathers to settle into life as a working parent. They learn to focus on work while simultaneously thinking about their baby at home. There’s time to test and retest schedules until they find one that works with baby’s bedtime routine. They can rebuild trust with managers and colleagues without worrying who will care for baby. Plus, they aren’t weighed down by the invisible labor that produces stocked pantries, clean clothes and cooked dinners. When men take paternity leave, mothers can enjoy these same benefits. In turn, they can ramp back up to work with more success and less stress.
Curb unconscious bias
Paternity leave has the opportunity to encite much-needed social change. Of course, this will take time. However, as more fathers choose to take time out of their careers to care for their families, the expectations that caregiving is on the shoulders of women will shift. If this happens, it could chip away at the unconscious ideas that “women of childbearing age” aren’t worth the investment. It may also get companies to equally develop and position their female talent for leadership as they do their male professionals.
Shrink the pay gap
Motherhood lies at the heart of the gender pay gap. One estimate points to a 7% wage cut to a mother’s salary for each child she welcomes into her family. Paternity leave can lessen this penalty. As stated above, more equal division of labor at home and time to ramp back up unburdens mothers so they can continue to pursue their careers. This can lead to higher salaries over time.
It also prevents mothers from choosing part-time or more flexible opportunities in their effort to do it all by themselves. Part-time work or reduced hours are a key source of the maternal wage cut. Less time working will bring in less pay. Plus, part-time work often earns lower wages per hour than full-time positions.
Despite these benefits, the barriers against fathers taking parental leave persists.
Stigma remains. Too many men and women continue to hold onto deeply rooted social stereotypes that dads are less capable as caregivers and household managers. At work, these outdated social constructs translate to career penalties. Similar to the ones women face, men who take paternity leave are perceived as less committed to their careers and often face lower wage increases and fewer promotions.
There are economic barriers, too. Paid leave for fathers is more limited than it is for mothers. In companies that offer employee parental leave benefits, many still distinguish between men and women. In doing so, maternity leaves are significantly longer than paternity leave and “top up” compensation covers more time.
Granted birthing mothers require additional time for recovery, however, the discrepancy goes beyond this consideration. For example, one Canadian professional services firm, maternity leave ‘top up’ is paid for 17 weeks whereas paternity leave is paid for only 2 weeks.
It’s time to shift thinking on paternity leave. New government legislation will help. More companies need to adopt gender-neutral, progressive parental policies. What can you do to move away from social stereotypes that are limiting parents from participating fully at home and work?