It’s Time to Make Paternity Leave Work

Reading Time: 8 min 



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
More in this series

Imagine that you’ll live to 100 years — perhaps a little less, perhaps a little more. This isn’t unthinkable: My research over the past 10 years shows that for many people, this will be a reality. Those extra years will be a gift, offering more purposeful hours and more time to enjoy your life.

So if you’re a parent, you’re left with the question: Why not spend some of that extra time with your kids when they’re young?

This would mean undoing the models we learned from our parents and grandparents. Their life spans probably followed the three stages tradition: full-time education followed by full-time work and completed by a period of full-time retirement. “Extra time” was allocated to the last stage of life — traveling, kicking back, enjoying family and grandchildren.

As your own life span lengthens, you are embarking on what could be a 60-year working life. That means you have the opportunity to move from the simplicity of three stages to something more personal and more flexible — a multistage life.

To make the most of the opportunities of a multistage life, you have to be prepared and able to redistribute time. That could mean, for instance, dedicating yourself to learning new skills when you’re in your 40s. It could also mean bringing forward some of that time that had been traditionally assigned to the retirement stage. Not surprisingly, some people are already doing just this: Expecting to work into their 70s and 80s, they are taking mid-career sabbaticals to explore the world — a great idea that makes complete sense.

But here is another way to reallocate time: Rather than working full time, flat out, for decades and then spending your later years with your grandchildren, why not redistribute some of that projected time from your 60s and 70s into your 20s, 30s, 40s, and even 50s, and spend more of it with your children? For fathers in particular, this would be a radical, but potentially positive, life decision. At the same time, it brings to the fore the need to better address the deeply ingrained systemic challenges women have faced trying to manage career and family obligations for decades.

Traditional Economic Models No Longer Hold

Some working parents are already reallocating their time, stepping back from full-time work to be primary caregivers. In most families, this remains a mother’s choice more than a father’s.

This is a missed opportunity for dads. Studies of fathers who adjusted their work-life balance to be present more often show that they enjoy their parenting role: Dads who are caregivers create stronger bonds with their children and, in the process, more stable relationships with their partners.

In the past, it might not have been feasible for many fathers to spend significant time with their young children. Indeed, in the traditions of economic specialization within a two-parent family, the person who earned the most (typically the father) focused his time on a career, while the other person (typically the mother) took the specialized role of carer. The residue of this model is stubbornly persistent.

But for many family partnerships, the logic of economic specialization no longer holds. There are now three good reasons for dads to take time out to be a parent:

  • Over a longer working life, the cost of taking a period of time out is proportionally smaller. From a financial perspective, when people are living and therefore working longer, there are many more years to earn an income. That means that the costs of stepping away for a period of time, measured by long-term finances and career advancement, are comparably less: In a 100-year life and an accompanying 60-year working life, taking a couple of years out to look after young children is a correspondingly smaller cost than it is in a 40-year working life.
  • Family structures are morphing. Families continue to evolve from “career + carer” — with the man following the career and the woman taking the caring responsibility — to “career + career.” Having two career incomes creates the possibility of greater economic slack for a family, allowing one parent to step forward for a time, while the other steps back.
  • People are having fewer children, later in life. More people are choosing to marry later, are having their children in their 30s rather than their 20s, and often have fewer children. As a consequence, at the very time when people have longer working lives, the actual and proportional time devoted to looking after children is shorter.

Given these trends, it should be easier than ever for fathers to be actively involved in childcare. But compared with mothers, proportionally fewer fathers are.

What’s Stopping Dads From Taking Parental Leave?

Let’s take a closer look at a specific period of parenting — spending time with newborn children. Despite their aspirations to be hands-on parents, many fathers don’t make the choice to do so. What’s stopping them?

Right now, by taking extended paternity leave, many fathers would be stepping out of the norm. Looking around at work, they see very few senior men taking substantial time off. Many men fear they will jeopardize their promotion chances and be seen as uncommitted.

At least in the back of their minds, men are also aware of the experiences of mothers: In general, women get paid less and are promoted less than men, and when they step out to look after their children, this gap widens. When women with strong career aspirations and experiences take time out to be mothers, they move to what is considered an off-ramp position. Getting back on ramp is tough for many mothers, who struggle to catch up with their male colleagues. Men may worry that they will experience a similar impact on their income and promotion prospects.

Men are also aware of the imbalance in current policy support for paternity leave as compared with maternity leave. In the U.K., for example, fathers get 26 times less state paternity pay than mothers. There are countries that are leading the way here: Sweden, for example, introduced gender-neutral paternity support over 40 years ago, and allows both parents to take 480 days of paid leave during their child’s first eight years; the majority of that time is at 80% of their pay. Swedish men in high-income jobs take an average of 14 weeks; for Swedish men in lower-income jobs, the average is still seven weeks. On the other hand, the Japanese government has also established a generous paternity leave, but it’s rarely taken up by fathers. The U.S. has no federal paternity leave law: The closest is the Family and Medical Leave Act, which stipulates that many (but not all) new parents can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and retain their health benefits and job during the leave.

Interestingly, some countries have parental leave policies that reserve some of the time for fathers only. Marianne Bertrand, of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, noted in her 2017 lecture “The Glass Ceiling” that these so-called “daddy quotas” are one of the most promising concrete policy proposals for helping families develop more gender-neutral childcare arrangements.

What It Will Take to Move the Dial on Parenting

What a shame it would be if men were destined to live to 100 and to work for 60 years but continue to take so little opportunity to be actively involved in day-to-day parenting. I believe this issue needs to be addressed right now. Of course, like many complex issues, there are multiple stakeholders involved, but it seems to me that corporations and families are at the heart of this change.

Corporations: Step Up

It’s fascinating to see how many companies have made significant progress in creating more flexible ways of working. This has offered a huge benefit to working parents as they maneuver busy schedules. But that progress, significant as it is, does not necessarily address fathers’ concerns — or mothers’, for that matter.

That’s because to work flexibly, people have to believe they will not be punished for doing so. This culture change starts from the top. It is crucial that powerful men who are fathers show that caring for their children is an important part of their lives. As well, companies must review their parental policies to determine whether they are discriminating against fathers. And fathers-to-be need to have those courageous conversations that put their own needs and hopes into perspective.

Some companies provide good models for how to support dads: Netflix gives a year of parental leave for either gender, fully paid. Etsy gives half a year of paid leave, also to either parent (and, nine months into the policy, reported that, “Of those who have taken the new parental leave, 35% have been promoted since April, which means they were promoted either soon before, during, or after taking leave”). IBM offers 12 weeks’ paid leave to fathers, partners, and adoptive parents, along with 20 weeks of paid maternity leave. More companies need to follow these businesses’ lead.

Dads: Step Up

Ultimately, this kind of change has to come from within the family. Few people want to (or can afford to) return to the traditions of career + carer: Traditional partnership roles can be burdensome for everyone, with men having to prioritize the accumulation of wealth and women bringing up children. The dynamics of dual careers are very different from those of career + carer. They are more flexible, but also more complex. Rather than being based on predetermined roles and norms, they are based on mutual commitments and interdependencies.

That means that both partners have to work together to create joint goals and to address issues of coordination. They need to create a shared narrative and mutual trust — relying on what the other says and does, taking time to listen to each other to seriously discuss substantial issues, and sticking with issues until they are resolved.

One of these substantial issues is who takes time with children. The vestiges of the career + carer are still being felt. That needs to change if we really want to create more balanced partnerships.



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
More in this series

More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.