America’s Parental Leave Lag Highlights the Ugly Truth About Flexible Work

The reality is that, though flexibility can allow for pick-ups, quiet moments and proximity, it comes at a heavy cost.

dad holding smartphone and baby

Twenty years ago, it would have been unusual to see a father conducting business while waiting outside a preschool mid-afternoon on a work day. There would have been paper everywhere, a file cabinet in the middle of the sidewalk, and a question hanging in the air: “Shouldn’t you be at the office?”

Today, these men are common, smartphone enabled, and, from looks of it (all that serious squinting), effective. But they may not be great negotiators. The truth, it turns out, is that it’s not possible to achieve equilibrium via Slack and the idea that flexible work hours and understanding bosses facilitate the prioritization of family is, if not exactly a white-collar myth, something very close. The reality is that, though flexibility can allow for pick-ups, quiet moments and proximity, it comes at a heavy cost. And these men, few of whom can count paternity leave among their work benefits, aren’t ultimately being either allowed or encouraged to put family first.

Between 2008 and 2014 the number of employers offering staff the option to work from home increased by 17 percent. Smartphones and cloud-based apps have made flexible work more possible and desirable than ever before – for both bosses and employees. But it’s important to understand who is getting the better end of that bargain.

“Workers can be just as productive – if not more so – when their schedules are less rigid,” says Lonnie Golden, professor of economics at Penn State University. “Additionally, when staff are given more flexibility, they tend to reciprocate by working longer hours and by bringing work home with with them.”

Employers don’t give up much when they allow for additional flexibility. Employees sometimes do when they embrace it. New research shows that flexible work schedules do nothing to decrease the number of family dinners missed by parents who’d rather be at home. But that’s not to say that employers, many of whom may not have a holistic understanding of flexibility’s downstream effects, are being cynical or manipulative. Employees want to work from home. They want to be flexible. Employers want to say yes.

“Millennials have an overwhelming preference for flexibility, and this has had a significant impact on how work is conducted today,” said Ariana Anthony, a senior public relations specialist at Etsy before her company axed a number of programs designed to encourage and support alternative work arrangements. She was right: Millennials, who already make up 25% of labor in the US and are expected to form over 50 percent of the global workforce by 2020, often demand flexibility over compensation.

But here’s the thing: Probably without knowing it, Millennial men are demanding compensation as well. Flexible work is correlated strongly with income gains for men. This is not true for women for reasons that make parental leave a particularly interesting topic.

A gendered 2017 study of flexible work and overtime found that “women, even full-time working women, do not reap the direct benefit men do in terms of income gains.” It’s worth dwelling on that fact because the gender discrepancy remains even when the numbers are controlled for sex segregation in the labor market and even ambition. Why did the researchers suppose this was the case? They had a number of thoughts, but once central theme was that women were understood by their employers to be using flexibility to prioritize family life. Men were–speaking in somewhat broad generalizations and about a sampling of Germans–not. Flexibility led to advancement when understood as a means to personal ends, but not when those personal ends were familial.

Which brings us to America and to paternity leave.

Paternity leave is understood to be good for both fathers and children. Fathers who take two weeks or more of leave are more likely to have hands-on involvement in their child’s care nine months after birth and children who spend time with their fathers at a young age score higher on cognitive tests, develop fewer behavioral issues and experience better mental health than those who don’t. It is also understood to save companies money on employee retention. Whether or not it loses them money over the shorter term is not clear–employees have a tendency to step up when coworkers go on break. Still, only about 12% of private American company employees have access to paid family leave.

Eileen Appelbaum, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a think-tank based in Washington, DC, explains that this is likely because the immediate costs of paternity leave can be severe enough that smaller business–and the bulk of American businesses are small–can’t risk waiting for them to even out. “It can be very expensive for companies to provide parental leave individually,” she explains, “but leave is cheap to provide when the costs are spread over the entire working population.”

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, of the eight top economic sectors, construction was the sector with the most employees working for firms under 50 people in size. The total? 60.4 percent. That’s a lot of workers (especially compared to the modest 22.8 percent in the manufacturing industry and the 30.4 percent in information jobs), but 100 percent minus 60.4 percent still equals 39.6 percent. That’s more than 12 percent. That’s a lot more. The lack of paid leave in America is the specific flexibility issue that employers seem to want to avoid. (Yes, blue collar manufacturing jobs are less likely to be divvied up among coworkers in the absence of an employee. But still.)

The reasons for this avoidance seems to be simple: There’s not enough demand from employees. Specifically, experts say there isn’t enough demand from men, who not only don’t ask for leave but don’t take it. In both Britain and Japan, countries with national paternity leave policies, the same impulse that results in people with flexible schedules working more (or something very like it) leads to men with guaranteed paternity leave declining to take it, a behavior that has become a sort of new normal. Why is this? There are plenty of reasons no doubt and some are likely culturally specific, but ultimately the situation seems connected to the findings in the flexibility study. Employers like flexibility right up until they believe it is being used to prioritize family over work. At that point, workers are no longer rewarded. At that point, men seem to get really nervous about being subjected to the assumptions faced by working women.

“An increase in flexibility at work may lead to the enforcement of traditional gender roles, and increase the gender gap,” wrote the authors of the gendered flexibility study. Extrapolate that idea to encompass parents and the predicament becomes clear. The problem has to do with what employers want their employees to prioritize.

Seemingly the only antidote to the family issues created by programs designed around the idea of flexibility is inflexibility. In countries with “use-it-or-lose it” parental leave laws, fathers are more likely to take time off. When the deal is explicit, workers–and, yes, specifically men–seem to feel more free to prioritize family in a real rather than superficial way.