Paternity Leave Has a Celebrity Problem

Facebook / Mark Zuckerberg
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Last March, Anne Hathaway addressed the United Nations in her role as goodwill ambassador for the first time since becoming a mother. In her speech, Hathaway expressed a measure of disappointment in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and its conservative mandate of allowing for 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents.

As Hathaway recoiled from the physical rigors of childbirth, she said, she realized how crucial her spouse was too caring both for her and their offspring during those first formative weeks.

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“The assumption and common practice that women and girls look after the home and the family is a stubborn and very real stereotype that not only discriminates against women, but limits men’s participation and connection within the family and society,” she said. “Why do we continue to undervalue fathers and overburden mothers?”

Hathaway is a rare voice in the paternity leave movement: A high-profile figure chiding employers and government policymakers for the antiquated notion that men can make do with minimal time away from work after the birth of their child, despite study after study proving otherwise. In most cases, public figures who become associated with leave are criticized for it — as in the case of New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, who outraged observers when he dared take two games off to be with his son — or dismissed as people with enough financial means to make the FMLA’s miserly guidelines irrelevant.

What paternity leave needs is the climate change equivalent of Leonardo DiCaprio shouting from melted ice caps. But in a society that elevates causes based on the endorsements of the very rich, can anyone with sacks of money argue the perils of a father’s missed paychecks with any real conviction?

Regardless of their level of expertise — or ignorance — it’s inarguable that people in the public eye can generate tremendous paradigm shifts in general attitudes. Jenny McCarthy broadcast her doubts over the safety of childhood vaccines and stirred an entire movement of anti-vaccination proselytizers. The novelist Norman Mailer was so unrelenting in his advocacy of the writing skills of convicted bank robber Jack Abbott that he succeeded in helping to get him an early release. (A few weeks later, Abbott killed playwright Richard Adan. Celebrity is not always used judiciously.)

It’s a kind of hypnosis, this cheerleading, and paternity leave could use it. Fewer than one in three men take it, and only 14 percent of companies offer paid leave.

“Huge barriers can be overcome more readily with someone out there believing it and practicing it,” says Jessica DeGroot, the founder of the work-life balance advocacy group ThirdPath. “Someone passionate about change — it’s contagious. And people love celebrities.”

DeGroot cites Mark Zuckerberg as a key example. In late 2015, Zuckerberg announced he would be taking two months off for the birth of his child and very deliberately framed it in such a way to lay the pavement for other companies to follow suit.

“Studies show that when working parents take time to be with their newborns, outcomes are better for the children and families,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post announcing his paternity leave. “At Facebook we offer our U.S. employees up to four months of paid maternity or paternity leave which they can take throughout the year.”

Silicon Valley has traditionally been the most progressive in this regard. Three years prior, Facebook vice-president Tom Stocky took four months off and spent a portion of that time fielding questions about it from the media and employees. Twitter, Amazon, and others have generous leaves. But in tech, few have the visibility of a Zuckerberg. And while he may have lifted the veil on the issue, he’s unlikely to sustain it.

“On a societal level, when someone like Zuckerberg or George Clooney becomes an at-home dad, it tends to make it more acceptable,” says Jennifer Fraone, Director of Corporate Partnerships at the Boston College Center for Work and Family. “But the problem is organizational cultures still don’t view men as caregivers. To change that, it needs more visibility.”

Sometimes that can come in the form of negative reinforcement. When Daniel Murphy took his pithy two-game leave, broadcasters took him to task. Boomer Esiason said that in his playing days, he would’ve pushed for a more convenient C-section.

“That was a real inflection point in the conversation,” Fraone says. “Those broadcasters were called out for those comments. It’s a neanderthal viewpoint. Having a child is the most important thing that can happen in any man’s life. How can you say a baseball game means more?”

Naturally, being pilloried is not quite the same as being celebrated or being an advocate. DeGroot says that in Iceland, a number of celebrities were photographed holding their children for public dissemination, helping reinforce the idea that masculinity and child care are not mutually exclusive. Those types of role models, Fraone says, can be beneficial if for no other reason than to grow the confidence of professionals waiting for their employer to catch up to modern male ideals.

“When a high-profile case comes up, it gives men more fodder to go and advocate within their own organizations for better parental leave,” Fraone says. “They say, okay, I know my organization doesn’t offer four months, but why don’t they offer anything?”

While Zuckerberg and Stocky might be emblematic of what the workforce wants, it doesn’t mean they’re going to become married to advocacy. Stocky’s first thoughts about parental leave were part of a private Facebook posting that got shared outside of his usual circle; Zuckerberg could have returned to work or not and still be able to dive into a money vault that would embarrass Scrooge McDuck. Paternity leave for the highly-skilled and highly-paid continues to be a separate discussion, one that may not trickle down to other industries.

Consequently, the potential for a celebrity endorsement may reside not with an upper-working-class CEO or actor, but within the realm of fiction.

Diaper giant Huggies took shit of a different stripe in 2012 after an ad campaign depicted distracted fathers failing to tend to their child’s basic needs. Dad bloggers rallied, forcing Huggies to pull the spots.

But just as advertising can endorse negative stereotypes, it can also propagate positive depictions. Fraone says that Unilever, makers of Dove skin care products, approached Boston College to collaborate on a survey that rounded up the complaints men had about their reflections in consumer culture. “Unilever saw the gap between real dad behavior and what they saw on TV and stepped up,” she says. Ad spots for Dove Men + Care began airing in 2014 that dismissed the lazy stereotypes and showed fathers functionally caring for their children.

It may be a mercenary approach — Unilever, after all, wants those dad dollars — but who cares if it’s promoting a better image? “In trying to connect with consumers, they’re acknowledging fatherhood as rewarding and important,” Fraone says.

DeGroot has also noticed an uptick in the depictions of nurturing fathers in other media. “Sitcoms like Modern Family or Parenthood are very involved and thoughtful” about stay-at-home dads, she says. Between weekly television and the advertising framing it, there’s likely no better subversive system for the message that dads deserve time with their children.

Ultimately, celebrities like Hathaway or binge-watched sitcoms are a stopgap measure. The millennials who will one day take over leading roles in the workforce will replace the baby boomers who subscribed to a more traditional view of a household.

“Only about 47 percent of boomers had a full-time working spouse,” Fraone says. “For millennials, it’s about 78 percent. There are so many dual-working couples that recognize the need to learn to be a dad from the beginning. As they age, they’ll bring that thinking with them.”

In other words, they’ll become the role models they so desperately need.

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