Dollars for Dads?
Paid family leave programs spread the costs of time devoted to family care. The financial support they offer also nudges fathers to engage more directly with newborns, tweaking traditional gender roles.
Women pay a high price for family commitments. A Pew Research Center survey in October reports that 51 percent of mothers who have children under 18 and who have ever worked for pay have taken a significant amount of time off to care for a child or family member — but only 16 percent of fathers. Not coincidentally, 51 percent of mothers, but only 16 percent of fathers, say that being a working parent has made it harder for them to advance in their job or career.
Mothers who are married – and stay married – typically enjoy some financial support from their spouses, buffering their lower earnings. But even they often worry about lost opportunities and financial vulnerabilities. Women who are not mothers may be penalized simply because employers assume that they are more likely than their male counterparts to take time off the job.
When paid family leave for child care is extended to fathers as well as mothers, it can help reduce gender differences. And if fathers spend more time caring for and bonding with infants, they may develop stronger lifetime relationships with their children.
Paid family leave programs developed in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island and the province of Quebec, as well as in Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland, were designed to promote paternal involvement. Economic research suggests that they are off to a good start.
Since California instituted its program in 2006, the percentage of all “bonding leaves” claimed by men has risen to about 31 percent from about 19 percent. Young fathers, in particular, seem to welcome greater involvement.
A particularly convincing measure of policy impact comes from detailed studies of the Quebec experience, which greatly expanded paid leave entitlements in 2006 with a “use it or lose it” five weeks for fathers. The economist Ankita Patnaik documents a sharp and significant increase in paternal participation, which reached 80 percent in 2010. In another paper, she shows that fathers who were eligible for the program increased their time cooking and shopping, while mothers reported more time in paid employment.
Analysis of the Norwegian experience offering four weeks of paid paternal leave shows more mixed effects. One study finds lower levels of conflict over the household division of labor and a more egalitarian distribution of time devoted to doing the laundry; another finds no effect on the distribution of housework, but better outcomes for children.
Norwegian research also suggests that parental leaves, whether taken by fathers or mothers, are associated with lower earnings. The daddy track, like the mommy track, is costly.
Men may resist the notion of paid paternal leave partly because they realize that greater family involvement, even if partly compensated, will hurt their paychecks in the long run. On the other hand, many fathers today seem eager to spend time singing lullabies and changing diapers, and some young professionals have filed sex discrimination lawsuits against companies offering more generous paid leaves to mothers than to fathers.
The informal pressures operating on both fathers and mothers in a highly competitive labor market may be a more serious obstacle. Many employers consider the ideal worker one who is unencumbered by any limits on scheduling or hours of work — enforcing what the sociologists Pamela Stone and Lisa Hernandez term the “All or Nothing” workplace.
A special issue of the Journal of Social Issues published last June explores the ways that fellow workers may stigmatize leave-takers, labeling them bad workers or gender deviants. Peer pressure often tends to reinforce the status quo, and men who take family leaves are sometimes derogated as feminine.
While the economic incentives offered by paid family leave cover only a few weeks, they offer public validation of the value of care itself. As a result, they could have a large cumulative effect on gender roles.
That’s why the journalist Liza Mundy calls paternity leave a “brilliant and ambitious form of social engineering.”
Let’s not forget that many institutions that enabled men to shift the costs of family care onto women in the first place were also socially engineered – restrictions on women’s access to education, employment, contraception and abortion.
By challenging those restrictions, women gained a place among the engineers.
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 10, 2014
An earlier version of this post included one state erroneously among those with paid family leave programs that promote paternal involvement, and omitted another. Rhode Island has such a program; Delaware does not.