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Old Managers, Old-School Expectations, and Why Men Don’t Take Paternity Leave

Historically, American workers have failed in one specific negotiation.

Most new fathers in America are not offered time off to spend with their child. Paid parental leave is only available to 15 percent of all American employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the percentage of fathers with access are even lower thanks to “primary caregiver” policies. This may make men envious of fathers who do get paid leave, but that might be naive. Many men offered paternity leave don’t end up taking it because they feel pressure not to or worry about the potential ramifications of taking advantage of contractually guaranteed perks.

“Guys get fired, demoted and lose job opportunities for taking leave,” says Josh Levs, author of All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses – And How We Can Fix It Together. Even men who are fairly confident that their managers are looking out for their best interest know this happens. That’s why many fathers don’t take full advantage of the leave on offer at their companies. Even at the corporations on Fatherly’s list of the “50 Best Places to Work for New Dads,” HR personnel reported that many new dads were not taking advantage of much-trumpeted perks.

The problem is so persistent and confounding — matters of expectations always are — that American Express, which Fatherly ranks as the best place for new dads, created an internal “#dontmissamoment” program to encourage fathers to take leave. The underlying assumption: Fathers needed the push.

Jacob Simon could have used it. The Boston-based bankruptcy lawyer says he didn’t take his leave because he felt pressure from his employer not to, but is quick to acknowledge that the pressure to get back into the office was internal as well — he had mixed feelings about his perceived absenteeism. When he and his wife had their first child five years ago, he was 36-years-old and working at a six-person firm. He wasn’t salaried, so if he didn’t work, he didn’t get paid. He took a week off, but called into meetings.

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He already had the attitude that there was an honor in showing up. He received a trophy in grammar school for never missing a day from kindergarten-fifth grade. That mindset is hard to shake. “If I’m not there, I’d have failed somehow,” he remembers thinking. Thinking back on it, he says that if he knew what he knows now, he probably would have done the same thing. As he says, the mindset is hard to shake.

But his attitude shifted with the arrival of his second child, born three years ago. He was at a slightly bigger firm and salaried. He wanted to take two weeks off, but he felt awkward pressing his bosses. He might have gotten the time, but, “It would have been a yes, with a wink, wink,” and a lot of emails from the office. He says that he balked because he didn’t want to seem high maintenance or in need of a lot of management, adding, “I was insecure about my job.” He was absolutely sure that the decision to stay home with his infant would have been held against him.

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Ultimately, he quit left and started his own firm. The parental leave was not the motivation, he says. He wanted more control over his own schedule and the chance to work closer to his home.

Part of the reason for the anxiety Simon and other men seem to experience about taking paternity leave seems to emerge from the age gap that exists between the C-suite and the workforce in many offices. Though many companies offer a variety of perks, it’s not unusual for corporate higher-ups to be seen as more traditional about gender roles and more dismissive of the idea of bonding time. According to Shiloh Butterworth, chief people officer at PAE Consulting Engineers, senior executives tend to hold to a traditional division of labor – women raise the kids; guys are in the office. Bolstering that is the notion that men aren’t as skilled with babies. These men (well, mostly men) have a specific view of what paternity leave might look like: Lying on the couch, checking scores, waiting for their wives to take care of the real work, all on the company dime.

“It’s the myth of the lazy dad,” Levs says. “They think of it as a scam, as a paid vacation.”

Why is the benefit offered if there’s pressure not to take it? “There’s a war for talent,” Levs explains. It sounds good during the interview process, but corporate culture actually dictates whether taking time off is perceived to be a risk. Employees, particularly young ones just out of school, interviewing for a new job are unlikely to get an accurate sense of that culture.

The idea of leave can scare management because of what it might do to the business, and there are the old attitudes of loyalty and commitment to the profession. As younger generations become executives, parental leave could become more of a given. Until then, it’s not an impossibility. It just means that the onus is on the individual to make it happen.

“It you think HR will take care of it for you, you’re wrong,” says Stewart Friedman, professor at the Wharton School of Business and founder of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project.

Friedman says that many employees fail to take a pragmatic approach to taking leave. They don’t have early conversation with management or keep lines of communication open, which is critical because pregnancies and babies require flexibility. They also, in specific case, don’t talk about their situation with clients and colleagues. They don’t, in short, proactively manage expectations — something that is undeniably difficult to do.

“The more you account for other people’s interests, the more likely you get support for your arrangement,” Friedman says. “It’s basic negotiations and diplomacy.”

The reason that a communicative approach is invariably effective? It’s likely in the best interest of the company for that approach to be effective. It’s hard to quantify every expense, with hiring, training, getting up to speed, and the lost expertise and intellectual property, but Butterworth says that replacing five engineers, a position that “ramps up” easier than most, would cost between $112,500 and $225,000. “It’s equal to us offering our paid leave program to all employees for a year,” he says.

Simon admits that he somewhat mismanaged his leave, saying he should have taken a second week after the birth of his second child. He’s more experienced now and has a better understanding of how management works. He realizes asking for the time wouldn’t have resulted in him being tagged as high maintenance. With age, he says, he’s become more interested in prioritizing his family and less patience with toughing it out. If he had a redo, his mindset would have been different. “Ask for the time,” Simon says. “Whatever happens happens. If the firm can’t handle it, fuck ‘em. You don’t need them.”

And if the demands of the family aren’t enough, men can always focus on the benefits that taking leave have for their female coworkers, who have little choice and have historically been economically penalized for carrying children. When father’s take leave, they help to level the field.

“Companies are concerned with gender equity,” Butterworth says. “Encouraging men to take leave helps set the conditions for it.”