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This Father’s Day, let’s talk paternity leave parity.

24th September 2019
By Reecho

The normalisation of paternity leave could be a significant step towards the achievement of workplace equality.

After all the hoopla of the hallmark holiday, certain issues of modern fatherhood remain largely taboo. One such issue is paternity leave.

While increasingly normalised in the corporate world, it’s fair to say that there are serious steps that must be taken before we achieve parity in acceptance between maternity and paternity leave. This isn’t wholly inexplicable when you consider the difficulty involved in normalising maternity leave in the first place; however, it is important that it be brought to the foreground as an issue that impacts society as a whole.

Why do we need to tackle it?

While ‘paternity leave’ officially focuses on the male in the parental relationship, its practice rewards families, women and kids everywhere. How so?

Paternity leave benefits women’s careers. When childcare responsibilities fall disproportionately on women, their wages and career prospects are impaired — this effect is lessened when the burden is shared with the father in the relationship. One Swedish study showed an earnings increase of much as 7% for women whose partners took paternity leave. Where once the priority of women’s rights campaigners was to raise maternity pay, the paradigm is today shifting towards encouraging paternity leave to level the playing field for working women.

As the slogan of second wave feminism dictates, “the personal is political”. Where is that more true than in childcare, a traditionally gendered practice?

Society benefits from incentives for parenthood, particularly with declining birth rates in developed countries. Where the aim of investment everywhere is to improve future returns, there is no better place to look than the next generation; studies show that children whose fathers took paternity leave in their infancy perform better at secondary school level.

Fathers who take paternity leave build stronger relationships with their children; while not directly correlated, a more egalitarian relationship between parents also results in lower rates of divorce and a higher likelihood of daughters pursuing non-gendered careers.

Fathers who take paternity leave are happier. Happiness is itself a positive thing, but in a more cynical sense, happier employees are more retainable.

Progressive policies act as a strong incentive for potential hires to join your company. In a competitive talent market (read all about it!), anything that attracts skilled workers to your company is a huge advantage.

Why don’t more fathers take it?

While workplace policies favouring gender-neutral parental leave are increasingly common, the real issues here are structural and societal.

Woman or man, corporate culture tends to favour those workers who can get back to work as soon as possible following childbirth. Even in companies with progressive policies, internal culture can be a stumbling block to achievement of parity. This is particularly true in competitive environments such as investment banking, where relationships and face time are important for success. To quote Bloomberg: Paternity leave can be “easier to get than to take”.

Hiring managers continually view career breaks with a suspicious eye. As the retirement age becomes later and the length of our working lives extends further into old age, greater acceptance of gaps along the way is merited.

Leave in general can be difficult for startups, as with leaner teams the absence of a given team member is particularly pronounced. Thus accommodating paternity leave, or indeed maternity leave, can be challenging.

How can it be overcome?

No magic bullet solution will solve the ingrained societal and cultural norms that prevent the achievement of paternity leave parity; however, certain steps can be taken to lessen the stigma surrounding its practice.

Make it compulsory. Do as the Swedes have done — ever upheld as the model of civilised social democracy, Swedish fathers are forced to take their share of the 480 days’ leave entitled to both parents. The result is a society where stroller-wielding ‘latte dads’ are a common sight. It’s hard to stigmatise a practice enforced by the state, but there is no need to relocate to Scandinavia. This can also be successfully enforced on an individual company basis.

Encourage your senior employees to set an example. Humans are fundamentally led by example. When senior employees take their paternity leave, it sets a positive example to others that its practice is acceptable.

Practice flexibility. This is less an issue of paternity leave per se, but more a matter of making your workplace more parent-friendly in general. Need to do the school run? No problem, come in at 10. Violin recital? Leave at 4. Your child is sick? Take a remote day. Old-fashioned adaptability combined with considerate parental leave policies can make a world of difference to a busy parent.

Consider the use of fixed-term contractors to take the place of the employee on leave. This solution works in the short term and on an individual case basis, and is common practice for women taking maternity leave. It prevents productivity loss that may be suffered in the absence of a given employee, and may benefit your company in other ways (see 5 — Consider Contractors).

Refrain from criticism of individuals whose CVs contain justifiable gaps. As outlined above, there is an unfortunate tendency for hiring managers to view career gaps through suspicious lenses. This is to the detriment of individuals — both male and female — who have been forced to take career breaks when their company’s parental leave policies have been unviable.

All in all, there remains much to be done to normalise paternity leave.

No magic bullet solution will suffice to remedy an issue that is structurally, societally and culturally entrenched; however, there are plenty of positive steps that can be taken to lessen the gap between the practice of maternity and paternity leave. After all, it could be the ultimate solution to the gender pay gap — and a great attraction and retention tool to boot.