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Companies Can Fight Paternity Leave Stigma, But Most Don’t

Lack of reimbursement pay, workplace pressures prevent most dads from taking extended leave.

The birth of his second daughter, Leela-Rose, last year put Bay-area resident Adit Mane and his wife back in the spin cycle of feedings and diaper changes. But Mane, a sales and marketing professional, had an advantage during that hectic period that most dads don’t: eight weeks of fully paid leave from work.

The result of a “non-birth mom” policy Mane’s employer, the biotechnology firm Genentech, adopted in 2017, the flexible leave allowed Mane to divide his leave into five separate blocks over the course of Leela-Rose’s first year. He strategically took time off after her birth and when his wife went back to work. This not only helped him bond with the new baby, he says, but allowed him to give his older daughter, 5-year-old Sarah-Lily, the extra attention she needed with a new sibling in the home.

“Having those eight weeks really makes it work for you as a parent and as a career-minded individual,” says Mane, who works in a sales and marketing role for the company.

Mane says the time off was deeply meaningful to him and his family. Still, his experience and attitude are unusual. Of the men that are offered parental leave, a significant number (probably most) don’t take full advantage of their employee benefit. This is because of social and corporated norms as well as gendered pressured. This is the secret truth about paternity leave: There’s a big difference between offering it to new dads and getting them to take it.

Few Dads Taking Sizable Leaves

Though a lot of dads relish the chance to spend time with their newborn and help their spouse after childbirth, Mane’s experience is an outlier in the American workforce. Most dads take a week or less of leave following their son or daughter’s birth, says Richard Petts, a Ball State University professor who co-authored a recent study on paternity leave in the U.S. He found that only 14% of fathers who take leave – and just 5% of dads overall – do so for more than two weeks at a time.

Legally, most male employees are allowed to spend a lot more time than that at home. The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, gives both male and female workers the right to take up to 12 weeks off after the birth of their child and for other family needs – as long as their organization employs more than 50 people. But the 1993 law doesn’t require employers to pay for any of that time away, significantly eroding its benefit to new parents.  

Only four states – California, Rhode Island and New Jersey and New York – offer temporary disability coverage to both moms and dads after the arrival of a new child, although the duration and percentage of wage replacement varies in each case. Washington state and the District of Columbia are set to enact their own paid paternity leave requirements in 2020.

In most of the country, whether or not workers have paid leave is the prerogative of employers. Few offer much at all. A 2017 study co-sponsored by the Families and Work Institute, or FWI, found that only 15% of men received paid time off for the arrival of a child. Those that do tend to be concentrated in higher-paying sectors, like technology and finance. Fatherly’s ranking of the “50 Best Places to Work for New Dads” is a testament to this.

FWI’s president, Ellen Galinsky, believes that the financial constraints force a lot of American dads to take an abbreviated leave, or none at all. “Parents are much more likely to take time off if they have some sort of replacement pay,” she says. California seems to offer proof of that hypothesis, with multiple studies showing that the state’s father-friendly law has led to a marked increase in the length of paternity leave.

Galinsky hopes more companies will offer reimbursement for new dads, in part because of the benefits to the family. Citing the findings of Lois Hoffman and other researchers, she says paternal involvement in child care has been shown to have a positive effect on children. “If they get involved from the very beginning, they tend to stay involved,” she says. That’s good for the kids and great for the dads.

Greater paternal involvement in early childrearing may also benefit spouses. Petts points to studies in Europe, for example, showing that women exhibit lower stress levels and return to work faster because of increased access to leave among fathers.

In other words, it’s in the best interest of all concerned — potentially including employers, depending on their outlook and the systems they have in place — for new fathers to step away.

Stigma Still Exists

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest paid leave is good for the organization. In the FWI survey, employers cited talent retention as the biggest reason for adopting child leave policies, suggesting at least some companies see a link between more generous parental benefits and the long-term well-being of the organization. Either way, the risk to the financial well-being of a company may be minimal.

When researchers Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman asked employers in California how the state’s family leave law impacted their profitability, a staggering 91% said it had either a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on their business.

Regardless, a lot of companies continue to look at paternity leave with trepidation. As a result, Galinsky says, some employees, who knows this, are scared to take paid time off, even when the corporate policy allows for it. In many workplaces, she believes, there’s still a stigma attached to being at home for an extended period. “There’s a penalty for women and there’s a penalty for men,” she says.

Given the dynamics of the job market, Petts explains, it’s usually men who are further up the corporate ladder who avail themselves of such benefits. “Overwhelming it’s the more advantaged fathers who are more likely to take paid leave and take longer periods of leave,” he says. That’s potentially good news if these managers are seen as modeling behavior. It’s bad new if they are seen as adhering to a different set of executive rules.

What’s needed, Galinsky says, is not just a shift toward more generous leave policies, but an evolution in workplace culture. One way to do that is by having leaders within the organization set an example, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg did when he took two months off after the birth of his two daughters.

Undoubtedly, the tech industry has led the charge when it comes to supporting new dads. Genentech is a case-in-point. The company not only offers a paid leave benefit that exceeds the California requirement but encourages parents to utilize it. The average dad working there takes seven weeks off in the first year after their child’s birth, says Nancy Vitale, the company’s senior vice president of human resources.

“There’s an abundance of research demonstrating the immediate and long-term positive impact that parental and childcare benefits have on children, society, and the workforce,” Vitale says. “We’re pleased to provide these benefits and encourage employees to take full advantage of them in growing and caring for their families.”

Mane says Genentech’s sabbatical policy, which gives workers six weeks of paid time off for every six years of service, helps create a climate where taking time off isn’t perceived as abnormal. Management sees it as a win-win: While one employee recharges at home, others learn new skills by temporarily assuming his or her role. For his part, Mane says he never felt pressure to make an early return after his daughter was born.

“There’s an attitude of ‘Yeah, this is our policy and you should take it that’s what you want to do,’” he says.