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Want to Resolve the Maternity Leave Catch-22? Pay Dads.

Parents deciding whether or not to take their full parental leave have plenty of reason to second guess themselves.

Parents deciding whether or not to take their full parental leave have plenty of reason to second guess themselves. According to new research, coworkers and employers are likely to conclude both that women who take maternity leave are incompetent and unworthy of promotions and that women who stay at work and stick it out are rotten parents and undesirable partners. These disturbing results emerged from data collected by having 296 volunteers evaluate a woman based on a staged conversation with HR about parental leave. The findings suggest working mothers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, but also that the expansion and adoption of paternity leave policies might aid working mothers.

“Women who are faced with the decision to take maternity leave or not take maternity leave find themselves in a catch-22 situation: If they take maternity leave, they will be judged badly in the work domain, but if they decide not to take it, they are seen as a bad parents and less desirable partners,” coauthor Thekla Morgenroth, a psychologist at the University of Exeter in the UK, told Fatherly. “I strongly believe that paid maternity leave is helping mothers and I would not want people to interpret our findings as a reason not to offer maternity leave. However, offering paid leave for mothers and fathers would be even better. In that case, parents could share the responsibilities—and the blame that is likely to come with it.”

Do employers hold grudges against women who take maternity leave? Or—perhaps worse—do coworkers and loved ones judge women who choose to forego those benefits, and consider them bad mothers? To find out, Morgenroth and their team recruited 296 employed volunteers from the US and the UK, and asked the participants to read a transcript of a mock conversation between a female employee (“Jennifer”) and an HR professional. The transcript was randomized to discuss Jennifer’s option to either take maternity leave or opt out (a control section skipped the subject entirely):

The researchers then asked volunteers to form a general impression of the employee, rating her on a scale of 1-7 in the areas of job commitment, family commitment, job competence, parental competence, and partner desirability. They found that both the decision to take family leave and the decision to stay at work had negative consequences. Women who left were seen as less competent employees, while women who stayed were seen as less competent mothers.

Gender stereotypes likely contribute to the problem. Women are still expected to put their families first, which means they are often not taken seriously in the workplace. And, paradoxically, when they buck expectations and opt out of family leave, they’re judged for violating gender norms. “Maternity leave gives them the option of doing the ‘right thing’ and staying home with their children, and yet they refuse,” Morgenroth says. “They very clearly violate gender norms and in turn they are seen as bad parents.”

Despite recent efforts to make paid parental leave a workplace staple, many women still feel as though they must choose between their careers and their families. Studies suggest this may be why many career-oriented women decide against having children, and why women seem to disproportionately give up their careers after starting families. In recognition of the unique challenges of working moms, most Western countries now mandate paid family leave. The United States does not, but American companies are increasingly stepping up and offering their own maternity and paternity leave programs.

Morgenroth’s prescribed solution, more paternity leave programs, comes with a catch as well. Evidence suggests that men feel countervailing pressures on paternity leave. In several country’s with mandated paternity leave programs, notably Britain and Japan, fathers still aren’t taking time off.  Morgenroth explains that though the role of women has steadily changed since the 1980s, studies suggest gender stereotypes have remain stubbornly in place.

“It is all a bit depressing,” they say. “But I really think in order for women to escape gender stereotypes, society needs to change.”

Given that handling cultural expectation is an all-but-impossible task for mothers and a profoundly difficult one for fathers, Morgenroth doesn’t have any simple advice she’s comfortable offering working mothers who want to be taken seriously both at work and at home. She does, however, suggest that the situation could improve if employers offered incentives encouraging men to take time off, thus normalizing leave and destroying the stigma around it.

“Keep in mind that you are not a bad mother if you don’t take maternity leave and you are not a bad worker if you decide to take it,” Morgenroth says. “These are just stupid gender stereotypes. Don’t internalize them.”