Paternity Leave: Why We Need it — and How to Do it Right
We need paternity leave. And we need more of it.
Men, women and children benefit from it. At the same time the societal meaning of paternity leave is very much undermined by governments, employers, and even fathers and mothers around the globe.
While the world largely agrees about the advantages of having maternity leave and the principle is applied in law and business, men struggle to find the same recognition for their need to be full time fathers in the first days of welcoming a new child in the family.
Paternity leave is usually a lot shorter, and worse paid than maternity leave.
What is more, men who take full advantage of their paternity leave often feel more prosecuted, judged and pressured afterwards to go back to the workforce and even compensate for the time they were missing.
DO WE NEED PATERNITY LEAVE?
The norm of paternity leave could be applied on a national level by the government or on a corporate level by the company.
But let us strip for a second that term from all ties to laws and regulations. Let us forget international comparisons and statistics and just ask:
Is it beneficial to society?
- According to one study from 2011, paid parental leave decreases the chance of neonatal and infant mortality rate by 10%, and is associated with a 9% lower rate of mortality in children under 5 years old.
- The help of the father in the early stages of motherhood provides for the early return of the mother to the workforce and is associated with increased rates of breastfeeding.
- Taking a break from work in any form is of course beneficial to a man’s overall health. One examination of the Swedish Multigenerational Register even indicated fathers, who did take their paternity leave in Sweden in late 20th century, showed significantly lower risk of early mortality.
- Learn more about the benefits of paternity leave by watching this video:
Young fathers suffer from gender inequality
The imbalance between maternity and paternity leave is a leftover from another era.
Women’s ability to bear children, as the greatest difference between genders, has always been at the center of all arguments for inequality.
Historically, it does make sense that for the larger part of society’s development women were taking care of the family and the home, while men provided.
After a large majority of women entered the workforce mainly as one of the consequences to the World War II, a huge feminist movement has been activated to fight discrimination. Women had to be able to work, without being the victims of ill-natured expectations and false-moral preachings.
And while it is widely recognized that women have a new role in society, the new, complementing role of men, is not as popular, protected or regulated – for example, women are still favored in child custody court battles.
And another example, statistics show, is that in most of western countries women are still able to take substantially longer child-related leave than men.
Sweden was the first country to regulate paid paternity leave, and that happened as late as 1974. Thirty-nine other countries followed with introducing similar measures in the next 20 years. And about 80 more countries, in the 20 years to follow.
And still, leave for men is shorter, worse regulated and worse paid than leave for women.
Men want to leave but can’t afford it
A Research in Great Britain has interesting outcomes. It discovered that the more disadvantaged the background of the father is, the less likely they are to take paternity leave.
- The likeliness of a man to take leave did not vary significantly by age, although it did raise slightly for the group aged between 30 and 34
- Only 67% of men with low education could afford to leave, in contrast with 86% of men with high education
- As high as 82% of white men enjoyed their time with their family, while other ethnicities showed an average as low as 68%
- 63% of men with household income below ten thousand pounds took advantage of paternity leave, while for households with income above thirty-one thousand pounds that percentage went as high as 86%.
DO WE GET PATERNITY LEAVE?
Dads, consciously or unconsciously recognize the need of the family to be there. Researchers found out that fathers WILL take their time off work when children are born, REGARDLESS of whether it is provided by law or not.
Still, most governments and businesses only provide short, inadequately paid leave for men.
The United States of America
The FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) provides 12 weeks of unpaid paternity leave.
However, the Act has severe restrictions that leave about half of American workers out of its coverage.
To qualify, a father has to have worked at least for a year for the government or a private business that has more than 50 employees.
Parts of the USA have more generous provisions for dads on the state level. California was the first state to regulate paid paternity leave for all workers – at a minimum of 55% and up to 100%. States such as Rhode Island, Jersey and DC have followed with their own regulation.
It is largely dependent on businesses to protect fathers and offer them to benefit from the company’s support after a child birth or adoption. Luckily, there are companies that do it right:
- Johnson & Johnson offer 8 weeks of paid leave following childbirth or adoption, and an optional 9th week for personal needs.
- Facebook offers up to 4 months of paid leave, which can be distributed according to need, throughout the course of a year.
- Netflix allows employees to do with video streaming to take advantage of up to a year of paid leave.
The European Union
Social policy is normally a field where the European Union leaves decisions to the member states.
As far as maternity leave is concerned, there is a common regulation – the 1992 Pregnant Workers Directive stipulates for 14 weeks of maternity leave, where 6 weeks are mandatory before and/or after birth.
The allowance during that period was to be decided by the member states. There was a push in 2010 to extend the mandatory maternity leave to 18 weeks, and to introduce paternity leave of at least 2 weeks throughout the Union, however, it was never excepted by the Council and was withdrawn back in 2015.
Still, member states have their own regulation when it comes to that topic. A comparison from late 2016 shows a great overview of the contrast between paternity and maternity leave.
- Most countries do have mandatory maternity leave regulations with 60% of member states with obligatory prenatal maternity leave and 78% with obligatory postnatal leave for women.
- On top of the obligatory leave, an amount of weeks is allocated as optional and left to the mother to choose.
- The average total prenatal leave is 6,5 weeks, whereas the average postnatal is more than double, at 15 weeks.
- The compensation to the mother during her maternity leave varies, but is most often between 80% and 100% of her salary.
- The shortest total maternity leave is offered to mothers in Portugal with 10 weeks.
- The largest maternity leave is offered in Bulgaria, with a total of 58 weeks, at a 90% pay of the mother’s salary.
In contrast to those generous numbers, paternity leave is quite stingy.
- Provisions for prenatal leave for men are scarce.
- Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, Cyprus, The Czech Republic, Croatia and Slovakia have all failed to introduce additional paternity leave. (Parental leave, which can be taken by either parent is available in some, but it is not guaranteed to the father the same as the maternal leave is to the mother.)
- For the rest, the average paternity leave period is 2,5 weeks, as opposed to the 15 weeks of postnatal leave, guaranteed to women.
- Only 42% of European Union member states compensate men for paternity leave at 100% of their salary, as opposed to 52% for women.
- China. The amount of weeks a men is allowed to take off depends on his municipality of registration for social security. In Shanghai a man can have up to a 10-day paternity leave if the mother is older than 23. In Shenzhen, the period is extended to 15 days, under the same condition. Generally, throughout China, a father is allocated up to 2 weeks of leave.
- Japan. The country is very generous towards fathers, allowing for 52 weeks of paternity leave. However, a phenomenon is being observed, where only about 2% take advantage of their right. According to one study on the subject, the reason could be that men do wish to exercise their right but are wrongly convinced other men will cast them off for it – that there is a ‘perceived group norm’ to reject that privilege.
- South Korea. The country, indexed very high for gender inequality, is experiencing a shift of values. Both men and women are allowed to spend 1 year off work and with their child before it turns 9 years old. Even though paternity leave is regulated from as early as 1995, only 8,5% of men took advantage of their right in 2016, and even with a big leap for 2017, it was still just 13.4% who exercised their right to take time off that year.
- Singapore. From as late as 2017, Singaporean fathers are allocated 2 weeks of paid paternity leave, at the cost of the government. There is the restriction, however, that the father must have worked for the past 3 months before childbirth, and if they are self-employed, they should be able to prove they have not received income during paternity leave.
HOW TO ASK FOR PATERNITY LEAVE?
It is important to keep a healthy balance between your responsibilities as a family man and as an employee.
Find out the laws and company rules, applicable to you
As discussed in the previous chapter, the amount of time you can take off varies a lot depending on the country you reside in and the company you are employed in.
Do your research, get on the Internet, consult social workers.
Make sure you know what you qualify for.
Discuss it with the mother
Despite what your government and your employer can offer you, or how you feel like, taking paternity leave must be a family decision. Factor in everything:
- Who wants to take care of the child?
- Who is the bread-winner of the household?
- Who will have it easier to go back to work?
- Can you/should you take your leave consecutively or simultaneously?
- If regulations allow for parents to choose who takes an allocated amount of weeks for parental leave, who will take advantage?
- If regulations are too strict, come up with a plan who will take sick/vacation days and how much you have. Come up with a plan for child care afterwards.
Speak to HR
Once you know what you want, discuss it first with HR.
You need to make sure you are in the best legal situation for your child’s sake.
Whether you are taking paid or unpaid leave, your place in the company should be protected.
- Double check if your preliminary research was correct about the rules and regulations
- Ask if you need to fill in some papers in advance
- Ask if there is any company policy to request and inform about paternity leave
- Ask what to look out for – have other colleagues in similar situations experienced hostility or any attempts at repercussions for their absence
Come up with a plan
You must have a plan before you discuss your upcoming leave with your direct manager.
Present to him or her:
- The length of your leave
- The regulation under which you are using it
- Who can take over your tasks
- How you plan to train your colleagues to perform your responsibilities
- How you will be available for emergencies
- Establish some red lines – ‘I will not be available after 8:00 PM’
Be open to a discussion but do not allow yourself to be pushed over completely.
Discuss your plans with your successors
Together with your direct manager, discuss your plans with the colleagues that are supposed to take over your work.
- Be kind and grateful. You are putting a new weight on their shoulders that they did not ask for.
- Do not shy away from explaining yourself – do mention you are doing this for your child. You are not going on a vacation.
- Ask for questions and stay available to give further details to your plan. Even though someone else will perform it temporarily, it is still your job and you want it done right.
- Accept suggestions but stay on top. You team wants to rearrange your allocation of tasks – that is perfect. Just ask them to keep you up to date for when you have to take back over.
Be available for emergencies
Make sure you leave your contacts, and availability hours for your colleagues to get in touch if they have questions.
Give indications – most important customers, tricky situations or red flags, where they would have to contact you immediately.
Try to come back ready and refreshed
Try to take the last 2 days of your paternity leave just to yourself, if the situation allows it. Or at least take it slow. Get some more sleep, do some sports, take a stroll or do some yoga – whatever works for you.
You will have a lot on your head in your first days back. Your colleagues will be eager to load off any tasks and information you had delegated them. You need to be fresh and alert.
Even in the most welcoming environments, you can count there will be pressure for you to hop back on the horse fast, as if you just came back from the spa.
Be respectful of those who took over your job
Chances are you might hear some complaining for the extra work you caused.
Listen closely and be grateful. Say ‘Thank you!’. Get your team some good donuts even.
Do not allow yourself to snap, sulk or even look too tired. Yes, you were gone for your family, but the first signs of you feeling entitled, and you will be attacked viciously.
Protect and assert yourself
A lot of men reject their right to use up their paternity leave for fear of prosecution and being passed over for promotions, projects and opportunities, because of their prolonged time off. They fear they will no longer be seen as committed, dedicated, available and capable.
Make sure in the first days of your coming back you explain to everyone you are giving yourself X number of days before you snap back into shape. You need to make it crystal clear your focus shifted from your work to your family ONLY temporarily. And you are back for the long run. ‘Just as it was before’.
PATERNITY LEAVE – THE EMPLOYERS SIDE
First off, let’s go through some don’ts.
Worst employers mistakes in response to paternity leave requests
UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES DO NOT, WE REPEAT, DO NOT:
- Do not discourage your employee from leaving even if you need them – it is very bad for morale.
- Do not ask ‘How about your wife? Aren’t women supposed to take care of the kid?’
- Do not mislead the employee about the rules. You can easily slip into some nasty legal issues in this tricky subject.
- Do not bad-mouth your staff for ‘choosing the worst time to leave’.
- Do not bother the new dad with unnecessary information or questions when they are away.
- Do not burden them with unnecessary workload before or after their leave – they do not need to compensate for it.
- Do not treat your employee differently because of the time off work they sacrificed to be with their family.
DO: Make sure you know regulations.
New fathers are often clueless or are doublechecking with multiple sources about any legalities concerning their new status as a parent.
If you mislead them, intentionally or unintentionally, you might find yourself in legal trouble.
DO: Be flexible.
Listen to your employee and allow them to stay engaged with the work process if they want to, or shut down completely if they want to. You can make suggestions to their plan but do not be aggressive.
DO: Be real.
Do not shy away from explaining to your employee that their absence will put a strain on the team.
Tell them you are supportive of their decision, but make sure you ask them to follow through with a strict plan so that their leave does not end up being detrimental to the team’s work.
Offer your help to break the news and distribute tasks.
DO: Look out for conflicts.
Conflict resolution is amongst your main responsibilities as a manager.
Caring for a child is generally considered an accepted value and therefore anyone who might have a problem with the new dad leaving, might keep it on the down low.
That does not make it less toxic. It makes it more invisible.
DO: Be fair.
Not just to the new father, but to other team members. The absentee’s plan must include a strategy to go back to top shape after their leave.
In return, explain to them that is the only way you can guarantee them fair treatment post-return.
DO: Be the strongest link in the chain.
Even if other team members are taking over the tasks, you are taking over the responsibility.
You are ultimately liable for any mistake, challenge or success the team has to go through.
Keep things under control.
DO: Be supportive.
Even if work is the most important focus for you, stay friendly.
Do find the time before, during and after your employees leave of absence to ask them how the family is doing, and if they are finding their paternity leave to be a fulfilling experience.
That should be the ultimate goal.
We have been conditioned to believe that participating in the workforce is the ultimate contribution to society that a man has to offer.
With shifting values from gender-based societal organization towards gender equality, paternity leave is becoming better regulated and protected from governments and businesses.
Still, there is definitely a stigma around men taking a leave of absence for the sake of their newborn, or when accepting a new child in the family thanks to an adoption.
It is not an uncommon reality that governments need to catch up and bridge the gap between the needs of a people and the laws, providing for those needs.
Until then it is up to individuals to recognize the benefits and follow the principles that will bring the ultimate wellbeing of their family.
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