Let's Stop Congratulating Men About Taking Paternity Leave

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These days, men are just as likely as women to claim that they need family leave, and many even want to equally split domestic caregiving, according to a new report. This sounds promising, like leaps and bounds of progress. Let us all rejoice!

Except, as the New York Times reports in its coverage, “men are much less likely than women to actually take leave if it’s not paid—and even if it is paid, they take much shorter leaves than women do.” There’s a gap between what men say they need, and what they actually do when it comes to paternity leave—and part of that gap comes down to expectations around money.

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The Timesreport covers the findings of two recent surveys on family leave, one of which, by the think-tank New America, was released today. The article spends a few paragraphs exploring the various reasons men don’t take leave, one of the most obvious being financial burden. The reality is that most Americans don’t have access to paid parental leave. In the U.S., 12 weeks of family leave are guaranteed to many employees, but it’s unpaid. A handful of states have instituted paid leave policies, but elsewhere paid leave is left to the discretion of private employers.

That said, men are more likely than women to have access to paid parental leave, and men make more than women when they take that leave, according to the New America report. And yet the inequity persists.

Expectations around masculinity are another obvious and inevitable explanation. More than half of men in the New America report felt that one of the reasons “men didn’t take leave was that caregiving wasn’t manly,” as the Times puts it. This is, presumably, why initiatives like Dove’s campaign around paid paternity leave so prominently feature photo after photo of men snuggling babies. It’s an effort to normalize men’s care taking—the philosophical shift required in order to get men to truly take equal part in parenting.

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However, both reports, according to the Times, conclude that, ultimately, attempting to change individual men’s conceptions of masculinity shouldn’t take the spotlight in forging an equitable version of parental leave. Instead, both reports argue “that to combat gender inequality, it’s not enough for men and women to change their behavior. Bigger, structural changes are needed,” says the Times. You don’t say. The New America report specifically says that “focusing solely on shifting masculine norms around care” is unlikely to result in meaningful change.

Unfortunately, the report’s actual structural recommendations are, perhaps, maybe just a little bit... infuriating. “If policymakers hope to see gender and economic equity outcomes from enacting paid leave policies, policies must be designed to encourage men to take leave following the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a family member,” reads the report. “To accomplish this, any paid leave policy must include financial remuneration men will consider adequate to compensate for their time off from work.”

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Again, women who take parental leave are already less likely to be paid at all for it, and more likely to be paid less for it, than men who take parental leave. The report puts it another way: When men and women have to choose between paid work or leave, women choose leave and men choose work.

Inherent in this recommendation is the idea that men want, and thus require, more money and more incentives to take part in care taking—an infuriating if possibly accurate idea. So, maybe these structural changes aren’t... structural enough. The report’s recommendations for workplaces is easier to stomach, however: “Workplaces must create supportive environments that accommodate and normalize workers’ caregiving responsibilities, regardless of gender... .” Fine, great, good! A wonderful aim.

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In the meantime, I have but one request: Can we stop congratulating men for taking paternity leave? You see it all the time, the man treated as a damned hero—a new, more evolved kind of dad-man—for stepping away from work and up to the plate of parenthood, if even for a few weeks. When women do it—and they do it with greater financial disincentives, according to this report—it’s simply expected, the norm, which undoubtedly informs the push-pull dynamic of men being less willing to sacrifice income for leave. The congratulations, the hero’s parade, bestowed on men reinforces the belief that families, rather than lawmakers and employers, will solve this problem with their individual sacrifices.

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