In my last post, I laid out several of the problems with the current structure of maternity leave and flexible work policies in the United States, including the gender gap in earnings and the expectation that women will still be responsible for childcare and domestic tasks implicit in many leave policies. As I outlined, these policies don’t fix the problem and may actually make it worse.
Thankfully, there are ways to correct this problem. Research consistently shows one of the best ways to combat the gender wage gap is to offer new fathers paternity leave. The thought as to why that works is that when father’s utilize paternity leave it leads to more equity in the work place, disrupts gender stereotypes, challenges gender role expectations at home and at work, and leads to happier, more confident, and involved dads.
However, when paternity leave or gender-neutral family leave is offered, men aren’t taking it. There are many reasons for this but one of the primary problems is that men are often penalized at work for utilizing leave. Specifically, they are given lower performance evaluations, passed over for promotions, and perceived negatively by peers.
One solution that has proved successful is to incentivize paternity leave, either by offering financial benefits or utilizing a “use it or lose it” model where if the days aren’t used by fathers, they can’t be used at all. These policies have demonstrated benefits both at home and in the workplace, with women being more likely to reenter the work force full time, and with more equity reported at work and at home.
Another solution is to tackle the problem from the top down and encourage managers and men in positions of power to take leave. When this happens, there is a snowball effect, with more men junior to them taking leave. With that often comes a shift in company attitudes around paternity leave and a change in work culture.
To me, what this data really points to is a profound need to dismantle deeply entrenched sex role expectations and gender stereotypes which are at the root of our paternity leave problem. Our views on the roles of men and women (within the context of a hetero/cis relationships) drive the policies which continue to designate women as so-called “primary” caregivers and assume that men shouldn’t or don’t want to be as responsible for childcare or domestic tasks. These policies in turn reinforce problematic and limited sex roles on men and women, and the cycle continues.
Clearly the problem of sexism exists everywhere, but does feel especially potent in this arena. I speak about this issue with great frequency with many of my new momma clients who, prior to having children, described their marriages/partnerships relationships as egalitarian. After the baby is born, and sometimes during pregnancy, I begin to hear moms describe shifts in the in the division of labor at home, in the way they are seen at work especially after maternity leave, and in the resulting guilt and emotional labor they hold. By contrast their male partners describe feeling shut out of the new parenting world and feel insecure in their ability to caretake. I also hear an increase in feeling of pressure to provide financially and to perform at work.
So how do we solve the problem? Short of massive policy changes, we can make small but impactful changes that chip away at problematic messaging about sex and gender. As I’ve written about previously, the language we use is profoundly impactful so it strikes me that a simple step is to be mindful of how we talk about gender and sex roles in the birth world. So instead of mommy and me classes and the dated model of the “primary” caregiver, we foster spaces for partners to gain support, mentorship and community. I am glad to see we are moving in that direction. There are more and more classes designed for new fathers and fathers returning to work, an acknowledgement of the emotional impact of fatherhood, and of the existence of paternal postnatal depression. There are also more fathers-to-be asking for paternity leave and more high-profile dads taking time off with their new babies.
We are moving in the right direction but here in the U.S. we have a long way to go before our parental leave policies are adequate for mothers or fathers. Furthermore, we have miles to travel in fostering a birth world and parenting community that is supportive and inclusive of queer, trans, and non-binary families. For now, think micro. Be mindful of your language, check your assumptions, and if you are in a position of power at work, consider using that privilege to make small shifts in policy and work culture.