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Could Paternity Leave Policies Close The Wage Gap?

The key to leveling the playing field for pay and career advancement might be in encouraging dads to spend more time with their newborns.

Could Paternity Leave Policies Close The Wage Gap?

If we want to close the gender wage gap, we need to stop focusing on maternity leave and start implementing paternity leave.

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The reasons why women often make less than men in nearly every profession is a complex issue with all sorts of determining factors, such as choice in professions (often due to gender norms starting in the classrooms), failure to negotiate, and gender discrimination.

But the “mommy tax” is also a big factor in why women’s careers stall after motherhood. Women who have children are often deemed not as dedicated to their employers as non-mothers and even fathers. Since the bulk of childcare is expected to fall to mothers, the sacrifice that a woman makes when she chooses to have children often makes her lose out on the higher earnings and promotions that her non-mothers and male colleagues make.

Yet men’s salaries tend to go up after becoming fathers (the so-called “Daddy-bonus”), in part because they typically don’t take off more than one or two weeks after their child is born. The number of hours they work per week also increases after becoming fathers. A lot of it comes down to the lack of paternity leave available in the U.S.

Currently only three states have laws implementing paid leave for both parents, with California spearheading the cultural shift in 2004 with six weeks of paid leave for both mothers and fathers, followed by similar programs in New Jersey and Rhode Island. The state of Washington currently has a similar law passed, but hasn’t been able to implement it due to a lack of funding.

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The policies that are currently in place represent a time when men were sole breadwinners and women stayed at home as primary caregivers of the family unit. University of Oregon sociologist Scott Coltrane found in his research that men “often refrain from even admitting that they would like to modify their paid work to care for family members” due to “strong pressures to conform to a masculine breadwinner ideal.”

Andrew Fleming, VP of Product at Business Insider, took two weeks of paternity leave, and says he put a lot of pressure on himself and was very careful of his vacation days in the year leading up to his daughter’s birth.

“As far as I know, in the history of the company, I was the third person to take paternity leave,” says Fleming. “Biologically, the mom needs more time to recover, of course, especially if she’s breastfeeding, but I think it does dads a disservice to not have that time [with the child]. It feels like that stereotype of the dad wearing the suit and tie and not touching his kid.”

The reality is, the family unit has changed drastically since the 1950s, yet American corporate culture hasn’t quite caught up with that reality. More women are entering the workforce with higher education than their male colleagues and a 2013 Pew Research Center report found that “breadwinner moms” make up 40% of American households with children. This statistic is a big jump from the 11% in 1960.

The problem is that women’s peak earning years coincide with her childbearing years, meaning if she chooses to start a family, she’ll lose out on her earning potential. Leveling the playing field with equal (and encouraged) paternity leave can help close the gender wage gap. A 2010 study by the Swedish Institute of Labor Market Policy Evaluation found that a mother’s future earnings increased 7% for every month that her partner took parental leave. Scandinavian countries have been the pioneers of paternity leave, not only offering the incentive to men, but also adopting a “use it or lose it” approach where a certain portion of leave can be used only by fathers and, therefore, is wasted if not used, writes Liza Mundy in The Atlantic.

The U.S. is going in the opposite direction of the Scandinavians with a decline of 5% in the share of companies that offer paternity leave from 2010 to 2014, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

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These companies are only thinking about the workers they’re losing for a short period of time, but don’t understand the long-term impact of giving women an opportunity to advance. A Quartz article cites OECD calculations that determined U.S. GDP could grow 9% if women worked at the same rates as men. Fortunately, not all companies are short-sighted. Google is known for its seven weeks of paid parental leave; Yahoo offers eight; Reddit and Facebook offer 17; and Change.org gives 18 weeks.

Mundy, director of the Breadwinning & Caregiving Program at New America, says that paternity leave doesn’t just allow men more time to connect with their child, it also helps advance women by dividing family responsibilities at an early, crucial time, which leads to a more gender-balanced system.

“Paternity leave resets the division of labor in the households, gives men a chance to get involved very early on in a way that often becomes permanent, and actually frees up women to work more,” says Mundy. “It also can spread the stigma around so that women don’t get singled out for being the potential problem hires or problem employees. If everybody–male or female–is asking for leave or taking leave that they already qualify for, I think it just levels the playing field for how men or women are looked at in the office.”

“There’s really persuasive research showing now that when men take paternity leave, the patterns that are established at that early time are surprisingly long lasting,” she continues. “And there’s good research showing now that men taking paternity leave and involved in those moments [with their newborns] are more likely down the road, for years, to be more engaged in the care of the kid, to do more like fixing dinner and all sort of relentless daily chores that usually fall on women.”

A cultural shift in the way companies treat family obligations will make it easier for families to properly devise a division of labor that works for them. Women can head back to work after starting families and continue advancing, and men who want to take on a bigger caregiving roles can freely do so.

This shift is already starting to happen, and the dads at the forefront are more vocal than ever before.

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One of those dads is Lance Somerfeld, who started NYC Dads Group after leaving his teaching job six years ago at the largest public school in New York City to become a stay-at-home dad. Shortly after taking his paternity leave, Somerfeld and his wife decided that one of them should stay home to care for their son for the first two years. Since his wife earned the higher wage and wasn’t interested in taking on the role of primary caregiver, Somerfeld happily took on the responsibility. The couple is expecting their second child, a daughter, in April.

Somerfeld started NYC Dads Group with a former colleague to connect with other dads and share resources on everything from potty training to preschool admissions to properly dealing with temper tantrums.

“We’re now almost 1,200 dads,” he says. “We’re not just stay-at-home fathers. We’re gay, straight, single, married, working at home, and otherwise. We’re helping dads across the nation meet up with each other and redefine what it means to be a 21st-century modern dad.”

But Somerfeld isn’t just fighting for stay-at-home dads. He’s fighting for all dads who want to play a bigger role in their children’s lives.

“With paternity leave, dads are saying, ‘Hey, in the grand scheme of a 40-year career, does it really matter if I take three weeks off or two weeks off instead of just five days?’ I think these conversations are starting to take root in the workplace. Men are seeing their peers, their colleagues, and even some of their supervisors being public and taking the time off that their employers are offering. I think we’ve been in a time for quite a while where the policies have been out there, but the corporate culture hasn’t caught up with public policy. And I think we’re starting to turn that corner now. I think we’re starting to see more dads be transparent.”

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About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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