When our first daughter was born in 1996, my husband, Ed, took two days off from work. I took six months of "maternity leave," which was unpaid except that I used two months of accumulated sick, vacation and comp time that I had stored.
I worked then as an attorney for a federal agency. Ed worked for a think tank, whose maternity- and paternity-leave policies mirrored ours. Theoretically, we were both entitled to the same amount of time off, although nobody had ever taken paternity leave at Ed’s employer. We never considered his taking more than a few days off, something I began to regret the day he went back to work.
I learned a lot during maternity leave and later, most significantly that those who stay home with babies, even for a little while, become the family’s child-rearing expert. I saw that if we truly wanted to share parenting and both pursue careers, Dad would have to share in the bonding, work and beauty of the first weeks and months of life. That’s where it all begins.
Equality between men and women will not occur until men start taking paternity leave and agitating for it, and employers encourage men to make time for family from the first months of life all the way to retirement. The pay gap between men and women will disappear only when dads make the same accommodations that moms do for children.
The Family and Medical Leave Act took a big step toward establishing a maternity- and paternity-leave system in the United States. But it has had little effect on most American employees; only about half are eligible for the FMLA. The utilization rate is just 6.5 percent (up from 3 percent eight years ago) because the leave is unpaid. Few fathers take FMLA leave when their children are born. They do not want to lose income, and they are also deterred by old societal norms and fear of retribution.
The fear of lost income and the stigma of a man taking leave play less of a role in dads’ decisions when the leave is paid and when employers get behind paternity leave, as KPMG recently discovered. In 2003, the second year of its new policy--which allows two weeks of paid paternity leave--87 percent of eligible employees at KPMG took paternity leave. That’s a huge difference: 6.5 percent versus 87 percent. Once the first man breaks through the nursery wall to take paternity leave and emerges happy and with his career unharmed, others follow. KPMG and other forward-looking companies such as IBM, Deloitte & Touche and Microsoft are changing family dynamics and, in ripples, the workplace and society at large.
Employers get behind paternity leave for a variety of reasons, but ultimately because it makes them money. KPMG has gotten great publicity over the last two months in The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune and Working Mother because of its paternity-leave policy. Such recognition pays off in gains in recruiting, retention and productivity. KPMG estimates that so far, its paternity-leave policy has strengthened recruiting and retention by 10 to 25 percent. Of the companies on Working Mother’s 2003 list of the best employers, 39 percent offer paid paternity leave, as opposed to 12 percent nationwide.
Paternity leave and flexible hours change the way we think about work and management. Study after study shows that most jobs can be done with modified start-and-stop times, job sharing and other flexible arrangements. It costs less to support a parental leave than to replace an employee who leaves.
Many employers view those who work flexibly as at least as productive as and often more productive than those who work traditional schedules. In 1999, my husband became the first man in his office to make use of the FMLA upon the birth of his baby. He took one month off. Within days of returning to work, he felt like he had never left. He created a flexible schedule, worked hard, got promoted, and appreciated his employer for supporting his leave and new schedule.
That time at home is now a dim, pleasant memory. But a year later, his boss took five weeks of paternity leave when his second child was born. Their office continues to thrive, their families benefit from their participation at home, and their employer’s culture has changed.
We may never become just like Sweden, the country where men do the most housework and child care, largely because their government has encouraged them through leave and cash incentives. But if the workplace and dads embrace paternity leave, our business culture may evolve into a different animal, one that values face time and traditional hours less and productivity more. Society, children and even the bottom line will be better off as a result.