Why it’s important to encourage male workers to take parental leave

A look at the risky business of ‘Dad bias’ in the workplace
By Michael Marty
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/12/2016

It’s a scenario that often plays out, with little fanfare — a young father keen to go on paternity leave is “reminded” by his boss that he’s leading a big a project so he’s “encouraged” to come back to work sooner rather than later.

The facts may vary but the result is the same — implicit bias towards dads has become a big reason so many new fathers are still afraid to take time away from work for the birth of a child. 

From a manager’s perspective, there are numbers to hit, and whatever work the new dad isn’t doing inevitably lands on someone else’s desk. Six whole weeks? It’s not like he’s the one giving birth. It makes sense to push back a little, right?
Wrong. This approach is flawed in that it prioritizes short-term need over long-term stability and investment. And that’s risky business. 

Actions and reactions 
Hardly a week goes by without a flurry of headlines announcing an employer’s plans to expand its parental leave program. These announcements command so much attention because there’s rising demand for parental leave in the United States and Canada alike, yet it falls largely on employers to meet that demand. Thus, maternity and paternity leave policies have become a highly desirable employee benefit in recent years. 

At the same time, another significant shift is occurring. Whether by choice or circumstance, families are more equally sharing breadwinning and caregiving responsibilities. More than 90 per cent of fathers and 70 per cent of mothers in the United States work outside the home, according to 2016 data from the Pew Research Centre, so a large majority of parents are working, and working longer hours to make ends meet. 

And then there’s the modern dads movement, in which men are seemingly more willing to embrace caregiving roles. In an incredibly telling 2011 statistic in the “The New Dad” series from the Boston College Center for Work and Family at the Boston University School of Social Work, nearly 70 per cent of fathers think caring for their children and providing for them financially are equally important responsibilities, while less than five per cent see their role as being purely a financial providers. 

Responding to trends
At the most basic level, there are two ways employers can respond to these related movements, which have the real potential to shape the modern workforce — they can adapt or they can resist. 

It’s becoming clear that companies that adapt to the realities of today’s workforce have a significant competitive advantage, while those that can’t (or won’t) change with the times are going to get left behind. Increasingly, that means not only putting programs in place to support working mothers, but working fathers as well. 

Over the past several months, there have been a number of strong examples of business leaders, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and TOMs’ CEO Blake Mycoskie, taking paternity leave. And leading employers, such as Etsy and Twitter, have demonstrated support for the role of dads as caregivers by introducing gender-neutral parental leave policies. But for every win for working dads, many more new fathers are taking little or no time off around the birth of a new child. 

There is still no defined blueprint for men who want to take their paternity leave when their children are born or who want to be involved parents as their kids grow up. Cultural norms change slowly, and gender biases persist in the workplace. Often, this results in men feeling pressured to prioritize work over family in what’s tantamount to dad biases.  

Eighty-nine per cent of fathers said it’s important for employers to provide paid paternity leave, according to 2014 Boston College Center for Work and Family. And yet the same research revealed 99 per cent of fathers felt their supervisor expected no change to occur in their working parents after they’ve become parents. 

When fathers cut short their paternity leave or feel as though they have to work long into the night, their productivity may not suffer in the short-term. But this type of pressure can breed resentment, leading to disengaged employees, burnout and even turnover issues.  

It’s time for employers to start seeing fathers as they see themselves — as working caregivers. Because if they don’t, they risk pushing away an incredibly important segment of the workforce. 

Michael Marty is senior vice-president and general manager of Care@Work in New York. For more information, visit www.care.com.

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