Why Dads Should Demand Paid Leave

A new study finds that fathers are increasingly stepping up to the plate as primary caregivers. Why is public policy so far behind?

When Mark Zuckerberg takes paternity leave, the world takes note. While we applaud his ability to “lean out,” we don’t generally talk about the support that a father – or any parent – needs to do it (and just how many don’t have it).

In our country, fathers are taking on more childcare and domestic work than ever before. In fact, they’ve increased their time spent with children during the work day by 65% over the past 30 years, and half of partnered American fathers self-identify as their children’s primary caregiver or say they share that responsibility equally with their partners. The number of stay-at-home dads has increased from just a handful in the 1970s, to nearly two million today. This is a promising step towards gender equality for our country – with benefits for children, society and the national economy.

And it’s not just the Mark Zuckerbergs who are stepping up. Despite the simplistic assumption that nonresident fathers are absent fathers – or worse, “deadbeat dads” – research also shows that most nonresident fathers are consistently very active in the lives of their children. This is important to know, as 50% of children will spend some portion of their childhood years living in single-parent households.

Not only are fathers spending more time with their children than ever before, but we know they want to do even more. The majority of parents (62%) who work from 35 to 40 hours a week, and nearly three quarters (73%) of those who work over 40 hours a week (at all jobs) feel that they do not spend enough time with their children. But they can’t devote this time without support.

As the first ever State of America’s Fathers report makes clear, the United States is not a parent or family supportive country at all. We’re a country where the poorest fathers and families are involved with their children despite the many hurdles imposed by current policy.

For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons, including becoming a parent, is inherently unfair: about 40% of workers find themsevles ineligible, and the situation is worse for low-income families. With approximately 71% of the country’s nonresident fathers earning no more than $40,000 per year, many fathers and families are out of luck – and for the lowest wage workers, unpaid leave is often no leave at all. Ninety-five percent of low-wage workers do not have the option of taking paid family leave through their employers’ policies for the birth of a child or to care for a seriously ill family member.

It’s time to adopt an affordable, nationwide paid family and medical leave program to guarantee every worker in America access to paid family and medical leave, no matter where they live or what job they hold (and of course, we need to provide a reasonable living wage as well).

In the absence of federal action, states (and sometimes cities) are leading the way. New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and California are showing positive results through their parental leave legislation. Of companies surveyed after the implementation of California’s Paid Family Leave program (which offers six weeks of partial pay for care of a baby or sick parent/child), 87% reported that there were no cost increases; 91% reported that there have been no instances of employees abusing the policy. And crucially, 91% of participants in California’s new Paid Family Leave program who had low-quality jobs reported that taking paid leave had a positive effect on their ability to care for a new child.

Washington, D.C. also has a chance to join the ranks of forward-leaning states if it passes a proposed plan to guarantee paid leave. The Universal Paid Leave Act would provide 12 weeks paid leave for parents, and for those who need to care for a sick family member, or themselves. This is a bare minumum to give the family time to adjust to their new arrival, to build shared patterns of childcare (which research shows create lifelong patterns), to organize longer-term plans, and to form early bonds between parents and children, all of which can lead to benefits that last for years. And of course, it’s not just the arrival of an infant that requires time: caring for a loved one in need, or yourself if you’re ill – should be something that the average American can afford to do.

Fathers are spending more time with their children than ever before. Universal paid leave won’t just bring about equality – it will acknowledge a reality that already exists.

As the President and CEO of a Washington, D.C. organization that voluntarily offers paid leave to its employees – I can vouch that the financial costs are worth the benefits. Not only can paid leave – even as much as 12 or 16 weeks – generally be paid for by both mothers and fathers through an estimated payroll tax of about 1%, but workers also feel supported in their roles as parents and want to return to work with us. And as a co-founder of MenCare, a campaign that promotes involved fatherhood in about 40 countries, I also know that policies that don’t encourage men’s caregiving pile up social costs of their own, particularly by keeping women working at rates and salaries lower than men. And employers are already paying the price for the lack of paid leave in high turnover and stressed workers.

Part of the reason big, headline-making corporations like Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, and many others offer paid leave to mothers – and fathers – is because they too understand these benefits. Paid leave – for all parents – can improve employee retention and recruitment, increase morale and productivity, establish consistent treatment of men and women (and birth and adoptive parents), and reduce absenteeism and turnover. Women are also more likely to return to work after leave when parental leave is equitable, helping employers develop and retain a diverse workforce. Finally, paid and equal leave for men and women – as parents, and as children of aging parents – has the potential to achieve what few policies are able to – equality of pay between men and women.

The tide is turning on paid leave, and most voters want it. A national poll released by National Partnership for Women & Families found that 76% of respondents support a national paid family and medical leave insurance fund that would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a new baby or newly adopted child, a seriously ill family member or one’s own serious health condition, including 61% who strongly support the law.

About 15% of 500+ US organizations surveyed offered paid paternity leave as of 2013 and a handful of states, and we applaud them. But it’s time to make paid leave universal – not only for those at a few select, forward-thinking employers, but for all of us scrolling through our news feeds. All workers need leave for when they become parents and for when unexpected illness happens – to them or to their loved ones. Let’s create a parent-supportive country, where taking leave isn’t something that’s celebrated for a small few but a benefit that’s supported for everyone.

Gary Barker

Gary Barker is the President and CEO of Promundo, a global leader in promoting gender justice and preventing violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls.