In the daily torrent of news about the fight for gender equity (ahem, #GoogleMemo), one policy has been increasingly thrust into the limelight: paternity leave. From the uproar over the initial Trump plan that excluded fathers, to frequent news reports of evolving corporate practice — even in traditional bastions like big law firms — more people and companies are paying attention to paternity leave.
This should come as no surprise: 94 percent of fathers polled in a 2015 Pew survey affirmed that being a parent was either “extremely important” or “very important” to their sense of identity. One Boston College survey found that 89 percent of fathers believe it is important for employers to provide paid paternity leave.
But here’s the thing: with a few prominent exceptions (kudos to the father who recently filed a class action lawsuit against JP Morgan Chase’s discriminatory leave policy), men have largely been absent from the fight for gender equity, and for our own rights when it comes to paternity leave and family friendly policies more broadly.
I’m guilty of this. As a proud male feminist, I have tended to think of my role as being a good ally. Or more accurately, a rhetorically supportive but ultimately lazy ally. I’ve been content to sit back and draft on the successes of the women’s movement: Hey, you get flexible work hours and telework? I’d like those too. Parental leave to bond with your child? Count me in!
When female colleagues at the U.S. Agency for International Development(USAID) formed a “Women@AID” affinity group, I tentatively asked if I could join. And found them already doing the hard work of organizing and advocating for better work-life policies. We hosted a brown-bag discussion about the popular “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” article by then-Director of Policy Planning at the State Department Anne-Marie Slaughter, with issues deeply relevant to my own life (as a man) and how I thought about career balance with my wife. Of the 100+ people who attended, six were male.
When I subsequently joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — rightly regarded for their progressive work-family policies — I again found myself searching for an avenue to engage. Once again, it was the “Women Connect” group doing the hard work, pressing for better solutions to work-family conflict.
Where are the men — these huge majorities who claim to value paternity leave — when it comes to advocating for themselves? Where are the men’s groups demanding better paternity leave benefits and flexible work schedules so that they can spend time with their children? Why is it that virtually every major organization leading the advocacy efforts for paid family leave — an issue that affects men and women alike, not to mention their children and families — is led by women?
Let’s be clear: right now men are losing when it comes to the fight for family leave. Another women-led advocacy organization just published a hard-hitting report on the state of corporate leave policies in the United States that disproportionately discriminate against dads (as well as LGBTQ and adoptive parents), and the picture is bleak: “The majority of the nation’s top companies give little or no paternity leave to dads and adoptive parents.”
Men: it’s time to man up. Not because it’s important for women, though that’s a good reason. But because it’s important for us. And for our kids. I want to acknowledge that many men already do this, and some have even organized broader efforts: I particularly respect the work of Michael Kimmel at SUNY Stony Brook, Tony Porter of A Call to Men, Brad Harrington at the Boston College Center for Work and Family, Jackson Katz of Tough Guise fame, Josh Levs’ advocacy, and Byron Hurt’s powerful work on black masculinity in America.
Let’s follow their lead, and start with something easy: #TakeYourLeave. Like most Americans, I don’t have access to paid family leave in my current role as an independent contractor (though legislation recently passed in my home state of Washington will soon change that). So I take it personally when those few men privileged enough to have access to paid leave (and let’s focus for the moment specifically on paternity leave) opt not to take the full amount. Worried that it might impact your career prospects? Yes, it might. And guess what? Women have been dealing with that for years, and the only way it ever changes is if you stand up and do something about it. This is how we change social norms.
I recognize that not everyone — particularly hourly workers and low-wage workers — is able to ask for and take leave for a variety of reasons. But for us dads who have the privilege, it’s time to start using it. Here are a few things you can do, fellow feminist dad.
If you have access to paid paternity leave, take it. ALL of it. And be public about it.
If you work for an employer that offers “primary caregiver” leave, call it out for what it is: a discriminatory policy that perpetuates damaging gender stereotypes.
If you work for an employer that offers different lengths of parental leave to mothers and fathers (beyond the 6–8 weeks medically necessary for women to recover from childbirth), call it out for what it is: a discriminatory policy that perpetuates damaging gender stereotypes.
If you don’t have access to paid leave, ask for it.
If your family can afford it, take unpaid leave (the federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides for 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave for some categories of employees). If you use this benefit, thank the women who fought for it.
Do you have a male colleague, friend, or family member contemplating taking leave? Encourage them to take the full amount.
Contact your Senators and Representatives, at the federal and state level. There is currently legislation pending in U.S. Congress called the FAMILY Act, which would provide 12 weeks of paid family leave (to include parental leave, personal medical leave, eldercare, etc). This is a vastly better solution than the poorly conceived Trump plan. In the absence of federal action, many states and municipalities have also introduced legislation. Tell your local reps to take action!
If you live in California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, or soon the District of Columbia and Washington state: congratulations! You have some form of paid family leave. When you use this benefit: thank the women who fought for it.
I welcomed my second daughter into this world on July 8th. Though I don’t get paid leave, I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can afford to take unpaid time off. I’ll be taking four to six months. To support my wife. To bond with and help raise my new daughter. To spend time with her older sister. Because it’s what I want to do. Join me. #TakeYourLeave
Brian Stout is a Seattle-based independent consultant, former U.S. diplomat, Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and board member of Humanity in Action. Current professional interests include progressive politics and combating income inequality. You can follow him on Twitter and Medium @CitizenStout.