The surprising big winner when men take paternity leave

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warns that paid paternity leave will be a job killer, cost businesses too much, increase administrative burdens, and lower wages for workers who have to foot the bill for a perk that not every employee can access equally.

Yet, if paid paternity leave ever becomes a benefit as commonplace as two-weeks’ vacation or a 401(k), the big winner, suggest researchers and scholars in the field, will be business itself.

Though the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act entitles employees of either gender to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave to care for a newborn, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued “time for care” guidelines calling for equal parental leave for both genders, new dads are still expected to bring home the bacon, not cook it.

Josh Levs, a CNN journalist, notes that numerous studies have shown that men who return to work after paternity leave are often treated dismissively by their colleagues and bosses, and all too frequently suffer damage to their reputations, reduced job responsibilities, and even demotions.

Levs, who also writes the blog ‘levsnews,” and is working on a book about the male role in parenting, isn’t just venting. When CNN parent Time-Warner denied his request for paid paternal leave, he filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging discrimination against fathers, one of the first suits brought under the new guidelines.

A scant 16 percent of U.S. companies offer paid paternity leave, according to statistics from the Society for Human Resource Management, but loss of income isn’t the main reason why most men don’t take paternity leave. Ridicule from peers, fear of career suicide, and the cultural expectations of a man’s role in society concoct a brew far more potent than money in keeping men wing-tipped and in the conference room.

“There’s still a powerful stereotype that real men work; real men earn wages,” says Brad Harrington, director of Boston College’s Center for Work and Family, and one of the authors of the 2011 study, The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted. The report found that only “one in 20 fathers took more than two weeks off after their most recent child was born. Only one in a 100 took more than four weeks off.”

That’s beginning to change, particularly among millennials, those born between 1982 and the early 2000s, a cohort of workers larger and potentially more influential on the future of the American workplace than even the huge wave of soon-to-be retiring baby boomers.

Also read: Time to rethink Gen Y

Surveys by PricewaterhouseCoopers reveal that 70 percent of millennials place great importance on flexible work environments, as do 60 percent of baby boomers. But unlike boomers, millennials are willing to quit — or sue — if an employer fails to accommodate a balance between work and personal life.

A few cited examples:

  • With no paid paternity leave offered by his company, 34-year-old newspaper reporter Aaron Gouveia stitched together vacation and sick time to be home with his first child. Before his second kid was born, he quit and joined a company that offered paid paternal leave.
  • When Jim Lin, 41, a public relations specialist and publisher of the Busy Dad blog, wanted to take a couple days off to help care of his ailing son, his boss dismissed the request as something Lin’s wife should handle. Lin eventually quit. “I just didn’t want to be in that kind of environment,” he says.
  • Though he didn’t quit his job, New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy had to endure withering heat from media big mouths when he missed the first two games of opening season to be with his wife during the birth of his first child.

The increasingly willingness of at least some male employees to take paternity leave will inevitably lead to a necessary cultural shift regarding paternity leave, industry insiders say.

Already, California, Rhode Island and New Jersey have been leaders of this trend by mandating paid parental leave in their states for mothers and fathers alike.

Governors of these three states may be paying heed to some surprising results of a report issued late last year by the World Economic Forum, which conducted extensive research on the global gender gap. Countries that found ways to keep women in the workforce after they became mothers, the study revealed, tend to have the strongest and most resilient economies worldwide.

But that’s not the big surprise: It’s the role paid paternity leave played in strengthening those economies. By offering it, encouraging it, and normalizing it, those countries enjoyed increased commercial vitality.  

But why? With more women in the workplace, more women holding advanced degrees, and more women often earning salaries greater than their husbands, women employees are increasingly key to the success of many businesses. Yet, according to a 2007 study, 60 percent of professional women who left their careers after their baby was born said they stopped working because their husbands were not available to share childcare and household responsibilities.

Paternity leave “shapes domestic and parenting habits as they are forming,” writes Liza Mundy, author of "The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family." Because men who take paternity leave are developing lifelong habits of shouldering more of the childcare and household responsibilities, she argues, working women can return to their careers confident that they aren’t the only ones responsible — and able — to raise children and maintain a household.

A recent report evaluating a paid paternity leave program in Iceland, in which 90 percent of all father take part, found that three years after the start of the program, 70 percent of parents who live together continue to share childcare and household duties. That’s an increase of 40 percent from the start of the program.

Though research indicates that women, men and children all win in that scenario, the biggest winner is business. Half the workforce — highly educated women — return to their desks, contributing skill, energy and acumen to the economy.

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