Paternity leave is ignored by corporate America — and that’s a problem for women

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Corporate America has a gender problem when it comes to parental leave, with a new study finding that Fortune 500 companies are far likelier to provide paid leave to mothers than fathers.

Ironically, thats a problem not only for men, but for women seeking equality in the workplace, experts say.

Among Fortune 500 companies, 72%offer some sort of paid parental leave, but fathers are generally considered secondary to mothers, according to the study from Ball State sociology professor Richard Petts, and Davidson College sociology professor Gayle Kaufman. For example, one-third of those companies offer twice as much leave to mothers as to fathers, their analysis found.

Paternity leave has long taken a back seat to the debate over paid maternity leave, a benefit thats mandated by the governments of all developed countries except the U.S.

But the pandemic is bringing a sharper focus to gender equality in the workplace as millions of mothers and fathers struggle with juggling working from home or continuing to commute to work while their children are remote schooling.

Moms are often bearing the brunt of that shift, with the Boston Consulting Group finding that women are shouldering an additional 15 hours of domestic work per week than men during the crisis.

Paternity leave has a role to play in equalizing gender norms both at home and in the workplace, Petts says. Currently, the norm is for men to take a day or two off after the birth of a child, but anything longer than one or two weeks is uncommon, he adds.

“If you give equal amount of time for both mothers and fathers, then you avoid emphasizing that women are different — that they will mostly do most of the childcare — and the consequences that come from that,” Petts says.

Petts says he was drawn to the topic of paternity leave after the birth of his child more than 7 years ago. When he asked to take time off, he says he was told he could take a couple days , but if he wanted more than that, hed need a doctors note to say that his wife was unable to care for their child.

“I was floored,” he recalls.

Fortune 500 companies, which represent the biggest businesses by revenue, are likely offering the most generous benefits available to American workers. Yet only about 17% of workers had access to paid family leave in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Employees able to access such benefits reflect what Haley Swenson, the deputy director of the Better Life Lab at the think tank New America, calls “the employer lottery.”

In other words, workers at big companies tend to enjoy far better benefits than people who work for smaller businesses or who are gig economy workers.

“These are the wealthiest, the most stable companies — and if they aren’t getting it right in terms of gender equity, in terms of whose time matters, then that’s obviously really upsetting,” she says of the new study.

To be sure, many men can take unpaid time off to care for a baby or family member through the Family and Medical Leave Act. But Swensons research into paid leave for men found that many dont take caregiving leaves for financial reasons.

“The dynamic we found is men tend to only take leave if it’s a paid leave option,” Swenson says. “Over and over again, no matter how we asked question, the barriers to men taking leave was financial. It was that he probably can’t afford it or his family needs him to stay in the workplace.”

At the same time, cultural norms around men and caregiving is changing, with less than half of men saying caregiving leaves arent manly, her research found.

Payroll and benefits company Gusto says it offers paid leave for “primary” and “secondary” caregivers, rather than defining it by gender. Primary caregivers receive 16 weeks of paid leave, while secondary caregivers receive eight weeks.

The reason for avoiding the terms “maternity” and “paternity” leave is because families “should be the ones to define themselves and designate who the primary and secondary caregivers are,” says Danielle Brown, chief people officer at the company.

One of Gusto’s co-founders, chief product officer Tomer London, took a paid leave when his daughter was born in 2016, with Brown recalling that he wanted employees, regardless of gender, to feel comfortable taking time off in a caregiving role.

Providing paid leave for fathers “is not only good for the individual men and their families — they have better relationships with kids and partners when they take leave — but it’s good for the work environment in general,” Swenson adds. “It sends the message that it’s a universal norm.”

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