Rethink Masculinity - How Government Can Push Dads Deeper into Fatherhood

Father's Day might seem like the wrong holiday to discuss discrimination against mothers. But the problem is an enduring workplace affliction, which also harms dads.

Employers too often believe mothers are less competent and less committed, even though there's no evidence to back up that bias. It is an archaic assumption in an age when women receive more advanced degrees than men and make up half of the workforce.

To bust the stereotype, the U.S. needs to do more than enhance women's role in the workplace; men need to ask for "daddy leave," a family-friendly policy that has worked in places like Sweden.

The U.S. is the only industrialized country with no national policy on paid parental leave. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers who have been employed for at least a year and have worked at least 1,250 hours in that year at a company with 50 or more employees. Only about 11% of workers have paid family leave.

The lack of a mandatory paid maternity leave doesn't help women. But even if there were one, it would inadvertently perpetuate women's role as the primary caretaker. Employers can pass over female candidates for fear that they might drop out of the workforce once they become mothers.

It is a vicious cycle that Sweden knows well. Sweden's commitment to gender equality grew out of the need to add more women to the workforce. But to achieve equality at work, Sweden had to change the old gender roles at home. In 1974, it became the first country to offer a gender-neutral "parental" leave. Parents could share six months of leave with pay (about 80-90% of their earnings). In the 1980s, this was extended to 12 months. But employers remained reluctant and the stigma attached to paternity leave discouraged men from using the benefit.

So, in 1995, Sweden set aside one month for fathers. If dads didn't use the leave, they lost their government subsidy. It also provided a financial incentive for dads to take leave. In 2002, they extended the leave by four more months, including an additional month for dads, enabling fathers to get a total of 16 months of paid leave.

With 60 days of leave earmarked for each parent, things began to change. Today, all mothers and nine out of ten fathers use parental leave in Sweden. The country boasts one of the highest employment rates for women. Reshaping "masculinity" has helped men develop closer ties to their children. It has lowered divorce rates,7 improved health for fathers and children and boosted earnings for mothers.

In 2007, Germany adopted a similar plan and reserved two months out of 14 months of paid leave for dads. Within two years, the number of fathers taking leave surged. Portugal made "fathers only" parental leave mandatory in 2004; by 2012, 81% of men were taking leave.

Still, this doesn't guarantee equality. In Sweden, it's mostly well-educated couples that evenly split leaves. Women are still working part-time jobs at a higher rate than men. Pay gap persists with women earning 15% less than men.

Detractors argue that mandatory daddy leave policies can be punitive because they force men to take the time off. They should remember that social expectations have long forced maternity leave upon women.

A "daddy leave" seems like a pipe dream when we don't even have a legit mommy leave. Here, the country can look to Silicon Valley for pioneering corporate benefits. Facebook offers new dads four months of paid leave. Yahoo offers two months. Family-friendly policies provide a boost in employee loyalty, productivity and retention.

Government, at least at the state level, is slowing catching up. Massachusetts just passed a law mandating all employers with six or more employees to give fathers eight weeks' unpaid leave. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island also require employers to give both parents paid leave. The Obama administration's "Lead on Leave" initiative has senior officials hitting the road to promote paid-leave policies.

Most fathers believe that earning money and caring for children should not be mutually exclusive but equally important responsibilities of fatherhood. Employers should catch up and stop dividing the labor pool by gender.

This essay first appeared in USA Today on 19 June 2015.

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  • Sonah Lee
    I agree with Kino, adopting parents should also be allowed equal or comparable leave time for the sake of their new child and their new relationship. It's an embarrassment that the U.S. is so still behind the times with this. Even U.S. federal employees do not have any parental leave and are forced to make some very "creative" arrangements. If paid parental leave was available to all of us, it would create a ripple-effect of change in so many areas of life in the U.S.; economics, health and even the culture of parenting itself. 
  • Kino Mondesir
    Excellent article with facts and rational. I think the best way to have equality is neutrality. The problem starts when you use words like maternity versus paternity. We should come up with a new word which describes leave for new mothers and fathers. One that does not discriminate on how children are brought into the world. Couple who adopt should also get the same type of leave. We as a society should agree on what is fair and make it law. We have learned that separate is NOT equal.
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