The significant benefits of paternity leave have been well-established for children, mothers, and the economy. These findings have shifted the justification for parental leaves from recovery from a medical trauma to improving child welfare and gender equity. Given this new framework, paternity leave and involved fatherhood will become responsibilities as important as being a provider for today's fathers.
Yet, paternity leave, especially paid paternity leave, remains a rarity in the U.S. While the Family and Medical Leave Act mandates up to 12 weeks of unpaid paternity and adoption leave, only 14% of employers provide paid paternity leaves, 21% of employers fail to provide even the FMLA mandated amount of unpaid leave, and 38% of men report having no option to take a paternity leave, paid or unpaid. Studies have also shown that men who invest in caregiving can experience wage penalties or be harassed for not being "man enough." This is the State of America's Fathers today.
Though popular support for parental leave is high (74% of registered voters according to one poll), in the absence of a direct vote, it is organizations, not individuals, who decide whether any employees get such leave. Yet, there are still things the average working father and any other supporter of paternity leave can do to encourage the growth of more family friendly policies in his/her workplace.
- Create a culture of mutual support for work and family responsibilities on your teams. The more employees can fill in for one another the more resilient a team will be against absences of any kind (from paternity leaves to vacations to reassignments). Cross training skills, keeping each other informed about project and client statuses, and coverage plans are essential to handle being short-staffed. If the entire team helps each other when someone is unavailable, without judgment of each other's lives, fathers will be better able to take paternity leave and return the favor when their colleagues are busy.
- Have a conversation about career goals. Fathers are assumed to need more work and money and be more loyal because they have a family to provide for while mothers are assumed to be the opposite because they have a family to care for. If you are a manager ask new parents about their career goals. Invite them to say how fast they want to advance and help them develop realistic long-term plans. If you are an employee, don't wait, go in and say what you are looking for and how you think it might work for everyone. Think about careers in the long-term so that the temporary disruption caused by a parental leave or any other parenting moment is just one point in a longer chain of success. The Working Parent Coaching Program at Life Meets Work guides employees through the process and helps them stay on track to succeed at work and at home.
- Come out of the involved father closet. For paternity leave to work people need to know what to expect, as managers, fathers, and coworkers. Sharing stories of yourself as a dad is a necessary part of making fathering a normal part of work and family life. Talk about how work still got done despite taking time to see the game with the kids. Share your strategies for staying on top of your work and in the heart of your family. Put yourself in front of your coworkers as a role-model of both your successes and the difficulties you face as the father of a growing child. Studies show that men are more likely to take a paternity leave when other men at work do so, especially if the role-models are in positions of authority.
- Question the reasons for policies. While policies are recorded, the reasons for a policy are often forgotten. So as circumstances change people don't realize that policies should change with them. By asking why policies are in place you can trigger a revaluation of their value. For example, asking why paternity and maternity leaves are unequal can prompt a discussion about gender stereotypes (e.g., women are always the primary caregivers and men need to support stay-at-home wives). It can also identify inconsistencies in policies and their stated goals (e.g., if a mom is using her leave to recover from giving birth, requiring her to do so alone with the added demands of a small child doesn't make any sense).
- Change the conversations you have about parenthood. The way in which we discuss parenting reinforces our assumptions about what it means to be a parent which in turn define what policies get enacted and supported. One way you can change the conversation is to ask both men and women how their family does it all. Asking about how the family divides roles rather than just how one person "does it all" shifts the burden of responsibility onto multiple shoulders that can more easily carry it. It also raises awareness of diverse family situations prompting more inclusive policy making.
It is up to everyone to create cultures that inspire organizations to offer family-friendly policies.