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Second Shift

Why The U.S. Will Finally Do Something About Paid Parental Leave This Year

Faced with congressional gridlock, municipal and state governments are enacting their own policies. Why now?

[Photo: Flickr user Donnie Ray Jones]

On the first of this month, New York City began to offer paid parental leave to all city employees (excluding—unfortunately—the 300,000 unionized workers for whom such agreements have to be won through collective bargaining). And later this year, Washington, D.C., will join six other cities (including Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco) and three states that have enacted paid parental leave for their workers. At 16 weeks, Washington’s will be the nation’s most generous policy.

For the first time, cities have begun to pick up the slack left by intransigent national legislators. If you ask me, those municipal changes are signs of more to come. It's only January, but it already seems likely that 2016 will go down as the Year of the Parent.

What Took So Long?

At first glance, it isn't immediately clear what's behind this recent push—especially considering that the biggest U.S. cities are pretty cash-strapped places.

But when it comes to benefits, Americans tend to bristle at federal solutions, letting individual companies do it their own way. That often results in an uncoordinated patchwork of policies, knit together haphazardly, with more seams than threads. And it's only then that we turn to government to fix things.

In the case of paid parental leave, a combination of ethics, frustration, and embarrassment is also motivating change. We know that supporting families—whether it’s new parents struggling to balance work and their newborns, or older adults straining to care for aging or infirm parents—is simply the right thing to do. Supporting families is the very definition of family values.

What’s more, it’s a global embarrassment that the United States is the only industrialized country—and one of only four of any country—to offer no paid parental leave to anyone. (The other three, for the curious, are Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho.) How can we possibly lecture others about loving and supporting families when we value our own so little?

Cities And States Step To The Fore

Faced with that question, and tired of congressional gridlock, many mayors, governors, and state legislatures are taking matters into their own hands.

These elected leaders know they can't rely solely on employers to do the job that governments are supposed to do. Today, only 12% of U.S. employees get paid leave through their employers. In fact, just over half of all employees are able to get paid leave for their own illnesses! (Often, employees resort to using their own sick leave or vacation time to create "informal" parental leave, sacrificing their own time for the sake of their families.)

Nor is paid parental leave having the deleterious effects some have predicted. In a survey of 253 employers affected by California’s paid family leave initiative, the vast majority—over 90%—reported either positive or no noticeable effect on profitability, turnover, and morale.

New Views On Parenting

Much of the recent progress we've seen is thanks in large part to the tireless advocacy of professional women. Women want family leave, they’ve made it clear they need it, and they vote. Many working women are tired of having to figure this out all by themselves (or punished for trying to), and of being looked at askance by their supervisors whenever they need to get their kids ready for school or tend to a sick family member.

It’s as though every single time a working woman tries to balance work and family, she confirms all those stereotypes that women just aren’t as committed to their jobs. The truth, of course, is that very few of us can master the deft choreography needed to be a devoted mom, dutiful daughter, and an inspired employee all at once.

That's long been apparent to women themselves. Now, finally, men are beginning to understand it, too. Survey after survey shows that men also want to balance work and family responsibilities. Men’s share of child care has increased significantly—though it’s also true that their share of housework has increased only slightly.

This lopsided increase means that in some families, dad has become the "fun parent," taking kids to the park to play on Saturday morning while mom cleans the breakfast dishes, does the laundry, makes the beds, and prepares lunch. "What a great time we had with dad," the kids shout when they get home. "He’s such an involved parent!"

The Road Ahead

These new household arrangements are introducing new forms of inequality into the family fabric. Men's wages continue to go up when they become dads; women’s wages go down when they become moms.

But that's adding momentum to the paid parental leave policies we're now seeing more of. The trend is clear: Men want to be involved parents. 94% of men in a study conducted by Dove Men+Care (on which I consulted) said they believe it’s important for a man to be a caring father. The results of that study have yet to be published, but it's already clear that men see the ability to provide care as a sign of strength. What's more, three quarters of the men surveyed said they believe this shift is a good thing for society.

Men and women haven't been Martians and Venusians for quite some time—neither primarily at work nor primarily at home. Here on planet Earth, women and men want much the same things. Until very recently, the United States was the only place on this planet where the government showed no interest in helping them.

For a long time, parental leave itself has been the victim of the discrimination women have long faced in the workplace and in society at large; it's been seen as a "women’s issue," and therefore shuttled off to the margins of the policy agenda.

The more men deepen their identities as parents, the more parental leave is being recast as a parents’ issue—and one worthy of pushing forward. It's about time.

Related: What Netflix's Amazing New Unlimited Parental Leave Policy Really Means

Michael Kimmel is SUNY distinguished professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University where he directs the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities.

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