Paternity Leave In The U.S. Is Abysmal — And It’s Hurting Women
11:00 am, June 16th | by Amy Tennery
What about the guys, indeed. Men also face gender stereotyping. Men face pressures that women don’t face — because they’re men. And on a certain (selfish?) level we need things to change for men in the workplace to reach certain improvements for us.
And, since it’s (almost) Father’s Day, let’s start with one of the more stubborn issues for men in the workplace: Paternity leave. Men don’t take it — and we really need them to.
On the surface, the laws surrounding paternity leave and maternity leave are basically identical in the U.S., which we might as well refer to as The Barren Wasteland Of Parental Leave Rights. As it stands, there’s only one law guaranteeing time off for new mothers and fathers, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. For the record, it doesn’t offer any paid leave, and it only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid time off for workers who’ve spent at least a year at a business with 50 or more people. Oh, goody. So while a lot of businesses offer paid parental leave, this is really more of a “perk.”
But studies show that when offered paid leave when a new kid pops into the picture, men typically don’t take it. Why? It all boils down to fear, as Randall Turner, vice president of the National Fatherhood Initiative told Family Education. “It is rare for us to find a father who is brave enough to take paternity leave. They really feel that there might be repercussions after they come back to work.” In other words, this is a man-made problem.
Sure, there’s a cultural impetus here that effects men and women equally. The U.S., as a whole, has an addiction to work — our typical workweek is a Red Bull-fueled hellscape compared to the rest of the industrialized world. And women are just as susceptible to vultures usurping their roles when they take leave as men are. But you’re kidding yourself if you think that men don’t face a greater stigma for taking time off than women do when a new kid arrives. Women are “expected” to take parental leave in ways that men just aren’t.
And this is, in fact, as big a problem for women as it is for men.
Consider Sweden, a pioneer in parental leave rights: In 1974, it was the first to recognize the importance of men’s parental leave, by changing the term “maternity leave” to “parental leave” — a move that, as the Women’s Law Project put it, “laid the groundwork to make a world of difference for working mothers in Sweden.” By 1995, Sweden instituted a law setting aside one month of the year-long parental leave for specifically dads in heterosexual partnerships — if the father didn’t take that month, the whole family’s parental leave would be docked down to 11 months. Families would be penalized if the father didn’t take a month off work.
Prior to the legal parental leave changes in Sweden, guys who took paternity leave were referred to as “velvet dads,” according to the New York Times, a term that’s just as derogatory as it sounds. And Bengt Westerberg, the deputy prime minister credited with pioneering the 1995 law, explained to the Times that focusing on getting guys to take time off has been vastly beneficial to women. “I always thought if we made it easier for women to work, families would eventually choose a more equal division of parental leave by themselves,” he explained. And he was right. Today the vast majority of men in Sweden take parental leave — and the country is among the most egalitarian in the world. (And its workplaces reflect that.)
Let’s do as the Swedes do. Clearly very little is changing culturally, so it’s time to make laws in the U.S. that guarantee paid leave for the dudes. Oh, and maybe a couple days off for the ladies, while you’re at it.