Today, the White House is convening a Summit on Working Families. While mothers will likely get much of the attention for their flood into the workplace and the barriers they still face, fathers will at least partially share the spotlight. The summit comes after a few smaller White House meetings, including one on working fathers specifically.
But do we really see men at work as fathers, or potential fathers? Employers used to tell women that only men would get jobs or raises because they had to support families. Women, on the other hand, would just get married and pregnant and then quit. It’s illegal to say that out loud to an employee today, but that doesn’t mean the conception of women as bad bets has been eradicated. When people look at applications from potential employees who differ only in parental status, the mothers are seen as less competent, committed, and suited for a job, promotion, or raise.
Fathers, on the other hand, are a sure bet. While women with children make less than childless ones, fathers actually make more than men without kids. We still don’t see men as children’s caregivers, inside or outside of the home. Even the government has a problem with this: The Census counts mothers as the “designated parent” no matter what the actual family situation may be and only counts dad’s care if mom is gone.
The “Leave It To Beaver” days still haunt us. While the majority of married families have two working parents, we all collectively think of moms as doing the care work and dads as being more devoted to their careers. It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as our threadbare family policies make it hard to balance children and work, so at least one parent feels pressured to interrupt a career to care for children. That parent is more often than not mom, which means dads don’t have to make adjustments. That, in turn, hurts female advancement and pay and furthers the stranglehold men still have on positions of power and influence—which, in turn, has the power to keep pushing women out of work.
But it hurts men, too. They increasingly want to be fathers. Pew found 46 percent of fathers felt that they don’t spend enough time with their kids, compared to less than a quarter of mothers. They are equally stressed about balancing their work and their families. Two-thirds of fathers in a 2011 survey wanted to split childcare duties with their spouse.
And yet of those same fathers, two-thirds admitted that their wives provided more care. The reality is that no one can really do enough in either arena, so everyone is making a choice. It’s just that the choices are different depending on the gender. So how can we give men what they want and let them be parents as well as workers?
Perhaps the single most important thing would be to pass national paid family leave. In the United States, new parents are only guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid time off. We are one of the only countries in the world—not developed countries, but all countries—that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave, and of 34 developed countries, we are just one of two that doesn’t make sure men can take paternity leave. Just 14 percent of American men get paid leave through work, and nationwide only about one in 20 takes more than two weeks off after the birth of a child.
The paid part turns out to be extremely important for getting men to actually take time off. It’s not rocket science: If a family is already wary of losing mom’s income to recover from having a child, it’d be insane to lose dad’s income too. Men may also still feel the pull of being the provider and be leery of failing to bring home the bacon.
Regardless, it’s clear that men will take leave, but only when they get paid. A new survey from the Boston College Center for Work & Family found that “there [is] an extremely strong correlation between pay and the amount of time taken off.” More than 85 percent said they wouldn’t use leave unless they got at least 70 percent of their salaries. And if men are giving a certain number of weeks’ paid leave, that’s what they’ll take. Half of fathers who got a week took a week; two-thirds who got two weeks took two; the largest share who got four took four and the same was true for those who got six. Meanwhile, 91 percent of the fathers who didn’t get paid leave said they would have taken more time if they did.
Real life evidence bears this out: In a state that has paid family leave for both parents, California, the number of fathers taking leave doubled and they take an average of three weeks off.
If we want real parental equality, we’ll have to offer the same length of leave to both mothers and fathers so they are seen as interchangeable at work. A long paid family leave for both parents wouldn’t have to mean a new burden on employers, though. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro introduced a bill in December that would give all parents 12 weeks of paid leave for a new child, to care for a sick family member, or to care for oneself paid for by a small payroll tax. (California, one of several states that already has paid family leave, finances its program that way.) Workers would put in 0.2 percent of their wages, or about $2 a week, and then be able to draw 66 percent of their typical monthly pay, capped at $1,000 a week. Companies wouldn’t shell out a dollar.
This doesn’t necessarily mean Republicans have gotten on board—despite the minimal costs for businesses and the government. But they have their eyes on issues facing working families, offering up their own prescription, which emphasizes a need to address these problems (even if it may not actually offer much relief).
When offering longer periods of time off, the United States may find it has to go even further and not just provide paternity leave, but incentivize men to take it. Sweden changed its policy so that men have to take at least two months off for the family to get any paid leave benefits at all. After that switch, 85 percent of fathers ended up taking leave. That small policy change can create a culture where men are expected to take leave, not just offered it.
This may all sound like a momentary revolution: Dad takes a few weeks off and then goes back to the rat race while mom keeps changing the diapers. But the time spent with a newborn has ripple effects that last. A 2007 study found that men who take two or more weeks off are more involved with caring for their child nine months later. They also have greater confidence in their abilities as parents and end up being more competent and committed as their children grow up. A father who takes a few weeks off work to bond with his new child will start seeing himself as more of a parent—and begin acting like one.
Paid paternity leave won’t singlehandedly change how we treat men and women at work, but it’s a start. Once fathers begin acting more like parents, male bosses may begin leaving work early to get to school plays and co-workers may be less grumpy when someone takes time off to care for a sick kid. And women will no longer be the more dangerous wager. A simple policy can sow the seeds of cultural change and make us see men as default parents, too.
Bryce Covert is Economic Policy Editor at ThinkProgress and a contributor at The Nation.