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Is Your Parental Leave Policy Reinforcing Out-of-date Gender Roles?

Nina Bernardin January 18, 2018

When Gary Barker’s first daughter was born, he was earning his Ph.D. in child development. As a part-time stay-at-home dad, Barker took his role as father and co-parent seriously, but he quickly felt the societal lack of support for fathers as caregivers. “I’m doing a Ph.D. ,” he says. “And colleagues were like, ‘You’re going to babysit, so you’re going to miss the study group?’” Two decades later, he still recounts the story with astonishment and a sense of irony. “Even in spaces like that, was secondary work,” he says. “The care of children was somehow in the way of more important stuff, which, in this case, was studying children.”

Barker’s experience was not uncommon, but his response to it was: he started support groups for fathers, began focusing his research on how men and boys could be more engaged in promoting gender equality, and co-founded Promundo, a global research and advocacy organization that extends that work worldwide. He spoke with thousands of fathers and their partners from all class levels and across cultures. The more people he interviewed, the clearer his findings became: when men share the role of caregiver and do an equal amount of housework, women are happier and more likely to return successfully to full-time work; men are physically healthier; and children are physically healthier, more engaged in school, and less likely to use violence against women as adults. His findings made it clear that engaging men in caregiving is essential for high-functioning communities and societies.

The further he dove into the research, the more troubling he found the way the US system is currently designed. Though women in the US are entitled to time off after the birth of a child (see below), their partners rarely are. When a child is born, this drastic life change requires adjustment from both partners. Yet with a father’s quick return to the workplace, mom becomes the default caregiver. Research has shown these patterns of caregiving established early are surprisingly permanent. Today, though 70 percent of mothers with children at home are actively in the workforce, on average women still have two to three times the amount of caregiving work and domestic duties men have. This imbalance in home responsibilities contributes to gender bias in hiring, bias against mothers in the workplace, the gender wage gap, and reduced gender diversity in the workplace and in leadership.

“We need to give more attention to the question, ‘What is this caregiving role and how do I, as a father, do it in some 50/50 way?’” Barker says. And this isn’t just an issue for individuals to wrestle with; it’s one that companies need to address as well. “On a policy level, anything that says ‘We expect more of women and less of men’ is ultimately reinforcing inequality,” add Barker. If your goal as a conscious company is to keep your workforce gender-diverse and thus thriving, it is time to radically reframe parental leave and support mothers by supporting their partners and encouraging more equal co-parenting.

“On a policy level, anything that says ‘We expect more of women and less of men’ is ultimately reinforcing inequality.”

Luckily, a handful of pioneering countries, businesses, and advocacy groups like Promundo are proving that alternatives to our current system of parental leave not only exist, but can work for organizations of all sizes. Here’s how to get started.

State of Parental Leave in the U.S.

best case

Best Case

Employees of companies like Facebook, Netflix, Spotify, or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are entitled to anywhere from 26 weeks to an indefinite amount of paid time off in the case of serious family illness, adoption, or pregnancy.

Typical Case

Typical Case

For workers at companies with more than 50 employees, both men and women are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) if they have worked there for at least 12 months or 1,250 hours.

Worst Case

Worst Case

As much as 40 percent of the US workforce doesn’t qualify for any policy-mandated time off and relies on the goodwill of employers not to replace them should they take any. This typically leaves the most vulnerable workers rushing back to work within days of giving birth or being forced out of the workforce at a time when their expenses increase significantly.

8 Steps to a more Conscious Parental Leave Policy

1. Make paid leave available to employees regardless of gender

Becoming a parent is just like learning any new skill: it takes time and practice. A good basic plan can be simple and cover just two categories: disability leave for women who are physically unable to work due to pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions, and paid parental leave that’s equally available to both partners. There are a variety of effective partner leave models: for example, some organizations offer 6–12 weeks of partner leave and allow for 2–3 weeks of that time to be used flexibly. For some couples that will be directly after birth, and for others it may be later.

2. Distribute the leave equitably to all employees and all types of families

No one is dispensable. By providing a paid leave option inclusive of all workers, not just a select group, your company sends a powerful message to all new parents — mothers and fathers, biological and adoptive parents, salaried and hourly workers, and LGBT partners — that they are valued and supported in their decision to start a family.

3. Set a tone at the top: create a culture of taking the leave that is offered

Though 11 percent of fathers are already offered partner leave by their employers, many choose not to take it out of fear of being perceived as less committed or fear that their position would be jeopardized. But one study by the American Economic Review found that if a man had a co-worker who had taken paternity leave, he was 11 percent more likely to take it himself. Cultivate a workplace culture that expects employees to use their parental leave without fear of retribution or career suicide. This entails support before they leave, reassurance that their job will be there for them when they return, and encouragement when they come back.

4. Have a plan

With 80 percent of people in the US destined to be parents, it is likely a teammate will be absent at some point. Preparing for this absence, having a plan for who will take on which responsibilities, and discussing how the teammate can be reached if needed will ease the transition for everyone involved.

5. Rid your policy of “primary caregiver” language

Many current forms of parental leave require employees to name a “primary caregiver” for their child. This is typically the mother, immediately loading her with the bulk of the caregiving and leaving her partner out of luck on parental leave. The use of primary-caregiver policies reflects the assumption that families will have one primary caregiver supported by a partner with few or no caregiving responsibilities. By striking this language from your policy, you send a clear message: we support you in co-parenting.

6. If you don’t know, ask

As your organization explores new ways of supporting parents, one way to learn more is by asking your employees directly. One executive at professional services firm E&Y asked parents through a survey what would make them feel supported and was surprised to discover that new dads wanted confidential coaching support to be successful working fathers. With each organization’s differences, going directly to the source could reveal some low-hanging fruit or innovative ideas unique to your employees.

7. Consider needs of new parents as they transition back to work

With a new addition to the family, parents experience a drastic shift in priorities and needs. As parents figure out how to balance work and family, flexibility in terms of hours and location can be a huge support. Ask yourself if your company is able to accommodate new parents by allowing employees to work from home on certain days or manipulating their schedules to support their evolving home lives. Is it built into your organization that new parents should discuss with their manager how their needs may have changed before or shortly after their return to work? Are there areas available at the office to privately pump breastmilk? Are options for on-site or subsidized childcare available for both parents? Start by asking new parents how you can support them to ease their transition back to work.

8. Be a corporate advocate

Use your position as a business leader to advocate for local, state, or federal policies that support working families, such as equitable paid parental leave. For more on how to do this, download “Step Up, Speak Out, Impact Policy — An Advocacy Guide for Responsible Business Leaders” at

Equity and Inclusion / Stakeholder Capitalism
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