We appear to be at a watershed moment in the fight for paid leave. Democrats, of course, have long championed the idea. But recently a number of Republicans have hung their hats on it. In his State of the Union Address, Donald Trump called upon our country to “support working families by supporting paid family leave.” Republican Senator Marco Rubio has allied with the President’s daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump, to craft their own proposal.
The devil, not surprisingly, is in the details. The plans offered by both sides differ in not insignificant ways. The FAMILY Act, first introduced by Democrats in 2013 to provide up to 12 weeks of income replacement for new parents and other caregivers, is funded through modest payroll deductions. Republicans, on the other hand, propose dipping into Social Security to fund paid leave benefits, requiring individuals — most of whom will be women — to postpone receipt of their social security benefits until later into retirement. But funding aside, the growing consensus that paid leave for new parents is of fundamental importance is unprecedented.
These early stirrings reflect the reality that Americans overwhelmingly support paid leave for new parents. However, Americans don’t view all leave-takers the same. The level of support for paid leave drops when the leave is taken by a man. While 82% of Americans support paid leave for new mothers — whether they enter motherhood through birth or adoption — only 69% support the same benefit for fathers. Less enthusiastic support for fathers’ leave mirrors traditional values about the role men should play at home and at work. Traditional gender norms demand that men act as breadwinners for their families and “ideal workers” for their employers, committing themselves fully to their work and not taking time off for family caregiving. Even as these norms are changing, still 76% of fathers go back to work one week or less after having a baby and 96% go back after two weeks or less. (A majority of American men are entitled to twelve unpaid weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or similar state laws.)
Although most new fathers are legally entitled to take 3 months of leave, and 2/3 of fathers wish to share caregiving 50–50 with their partners, studies show that the vast majority of men are hesitant to take leave unless at least 70% of their salaries are paid. Indeed, new fathers who did not have access to paid leave report that they would have taken more time off work if it had been paid. And that’s likely true: after California implemented a paid leave program, the rate of fathers taking leave nearly doubled. Whether out of economic necessity or traditional values, many men still feel immense pressure to bring home a paycheck every week.
If we want fathers to provide equal care for their babies, these statistics tell us that we have to pay them to take leave. Paid leave for men is good for men, but it is also critical to equality for women. Here are four reasons why:
1. Paid leave for men gives women a boost in the workplace: Women face major penalties at work when they become mothers. They’re assumed to be less reliable, less authoritative, and less competent. Compare this to fathers, who are perceived to be more responsible and trustworthy than men without kids. Indeed, much of the pay gap between men and women can be attributed to motherhood. While women suffer a wage penalty when they become mothers, fathers see their pay increase.
Workplace equality for women will come only when employers no longer view mothers as a disproportionate burden on the workplace. When men are incentivized (i.e., paid) to take parental leave for durations similar to women, we can expect to see two shifts: The first is that employers will come to view time off for a new baby as a normal employee event triggered by most workers of childbearing age (not just women). Second, as a result, managers will be less likely to punish women for childbearing, for example by refusing to hire or promote them over a man because of worries about maternity leave. (Less favorable treatment based on sex or for taking leave happens, but is typically illegal under federal and state law. Contact the Center for WorkLife Law’s legal hotline at firstname.lastname@example.org for free information about your legal rights.) Paid leave for men isn’t a panacea for workplace discrimination against mothers, but it’s the single best workplace policy solution to support the 2/3 of men who want to be equal caregivers to their children.
2. Paid leave for men creates equality, and sanity, for women at home: Currently fewer than 1 out of 3 men take on an equal share of caregiving work with their wives. But when fathers are more involved in their children’s lives starting from birth, taking on domestic duties on equal footing with their partners, they will be more involved for the rest of their children’s lives. Men with access to paid leave are integrated early into childcare routines and establish patterns that are likely to last after both parents return to work. And an equal division of labor at home saves mothers from being stretched too thin. Paternal involvement in infant care has been linked to, for example, better sleep for mothers and lower divorce rates in the first years of parenthood.
3. Paid leave for men strengthens a core feminist principle: One of feminism’s core tenets is that gender stereotypes are unfair and deleterious. Women should not be held back at work by stifling gender norms of how they are expected to behave: that they must be appeasing, be good team players, be always available to their children. These stereotypes constrict women’s work opportunities and make it harder for them to advance in their careers, receive raises, and earn the respect they deserve. But for the same reasons women should not be bound by stereotypes, men, too, should not be constrained by unfair sex-based expectations.
It’s high time we rid society of the stereotype that “real men” aren’t attached and emotionally bonded to their children. Bronnie Ware, a longtime palliative nurse, noted in her book about death and dying that “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” was one of the top regrets of every single male patient she nursed. “They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship,” she wrote. For many people, connection to one’s children offers one of the greatest sources of joy and underpinnings of a fulfilled life. Removing gender stereotypes will enable people of all genders to lead fuller, more balanced lives at home and at work, strengthening feminism and freeing individuals.
4. Paid leave for men sets a good example for budding feminists: When parents and society send the message that fathers are valued at home, we instill in the next generation a new norm where parents — regardless of gender — are expected and allowed to care for their children. Although a child won’t remember that their dad took paid leave, the effects of this early involvement, at the family-level and in the workplace, will last a lifetime. Boys will learn that men participate equally in caregiving, and girls will grow up without the expectation that they will shoulder the burden on their own.