Celebrating Fathers

father giving milk to his baby
father giving milk to his baby

Father's Day is soon upon us -- a day to celebrate dads and thank them for all they do. Yet, the ads encouraging us to buy gifts and greeting cards suggest that what dads mostly do is use tools, grill meat, enjoy sports and cars, and relax (with a beer or a mixed drink). These images and sentiments are confining, and we imagine discouraging, to some dads. Moreover, they don't celebrate the paternal activities that really matter to kids and families.

What matters for childhood development is that parents share everyday child-rearing and household activities. Surveys documenting how parents spend their time continue to show a strong gender gap. How can we fix this? And how can we stop the cards and advertisements that not only promote an antiquated view of gender labor, but in doing so suggest that this view is an acceptable assumption to make?

One solution begins at birth -- for the father and the child. Paid paternity leave.

Paid maternity leave has long been considered essential to leveling the playing field for working women. But increasingly, the issue is being framed more inclusively and insightfully as paid parental leave. Paternity leave -- especially extended leave of several weeks or more - promotes parenting engagement and satisfaction, improves outcomes for children, and enhances gender equity at home and at work.

For example, in a study of paternity leave and its effect on paternal involvement and child outcomes in the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Australia, researchers find that paternity leave of 10 days or more is positively associated with fathers' involvement with children and child care-related activities such as helping their child with eating or going to bed. In the United States, paternity leave of two weeks or more predicts fathers' more regular involvement with child care activities compared with men who took no leave at all. Further research suggests these paternal activities reduce stress on the family and contribute to father-infant bonding.

Not surprisingly, fathers are significantly less likely than mothers to take paid or unpaid parental leave. So what's stopping them?

First, legislation mandating or encouraging paternity leave lags behind that of maternity leave. Virtually all advanced economies -- notably excepting the United States - legislate paid maternity leave. Yet a 2014 International Labor Organization report found that of 167 reporting countries fewer than half (70) legislate paid paternity leave. Only five countries offer leave periods longer than two weeks. In the United States, only 3 states (California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) provide equal and paid family leave to both mothers and fathers.

Second, even when paternity leave is offered, fathers encounter or perceive reasons not to take longer leaves. Research from the Georgetown University Women's Leadership Institute shows that U.S. cultural norms still favor traditional gender roles whereby the father is the primary breadwinner and the mother does the daily childcare and household responsibilities. These antiquated expectations for each gender - like those evident in the Father's Day cards - combined with policy insufficiencies (e.g., unpaid or inflexible parental leave) discourage fathers from taking parental leave. Naturally, paid paternity leave has the potential to help fathers reconcile the pull in two directions, taking a more active role in child care from the beginning, all while not forgoing workplace goals and pay.

This Father's Day and throughout the year, let's resolve to boost fathers' parental leave-taking, and in so doing, to break down gender stereotypes that serve to limit perceptions of what is possible both at work and for our families. What leads to increased access to and use of paternity leave? Making leave a statutory right (not just a friendly benefit), being paid for the time off, normalizing the notion of paternity leave and gaining its social acceptance, and structuring leave programs to be flexible to meet varied circumstances and expectations. More fathers on paternity leave -- that's something to celebrate!

Marcia Mintz, Managing Director of Georgetown McDonough's Center for Business and Public Policy and Senior Fellow at the Georgetown University Women's Leadership Institute contributed to this column.