The adoption of paternity leave policies is on the rise, with 29% of U.S. companies currently offering new fathers at least some form of paid leave. That’s up from 21% in 2016, so progress is happening, if slowly.
But even at companies that do offer paternity leave, employees can be hesitant to embrace the policy. Recent research by Dove Men+Care and Promundo found that in the United States, 73% of fathers report little workplace support for working dads. Worse, 21% say they’re afraid they’d lose their jobs if they took the full amount of paternity leave being offered — a fear which is not entirely ungrounded.
And this is not a problem that’s limited to the United States. Even in countries like Japan and South Korea that have some of the world’s most generous paternity leave policies, few men actually take the time off.
Adopting and funding a leave policy is admirable, but meaningful change can only happen when companies have a culture that truly supports it. Considering that 69% of dads would be willing to switch jobs if it meant they could be more involved in caring for their newborn child, there is a huge business case for fostering a father-friendly work culture that helps employees feel comfortable taking time off. Companies that don’t embrace paternity leave risk losing employees — and hurting their employer brand.
Here are a few steps, inspired by companies that are leading the way, you can take to build a culture that supports working dads.
Weed out stereotypes about masculinity that ultimately hurt employees of all genders
Workplaces have come a long way over the past few decades, but certain stereotypes about male and female employees persist. Specifically, the old attitudes that women are caregivers and men are breadwinners is still ingrained in many company cultures, limiting professional and personal opportunities for all employees.
Women face the so-called “motherhood penalty,” which makes moms fall even further behind on pay than their other women colleagues. Men, on the other hand, worry that if they take leave they’ll be placed on the “daddy track” — skipped over for promotions and raises — because they’re perceived as not serious about their career. But when fathers are able to take time off for their children without fear of repercussions, mothers have an easier time reentering the workforce.
When parenthood is treated like an important topic for men and women alike, everybody benefits. Companies should establish a fair and balanced parental leave policy for both moms and dads and create gender-neutral messaging that doesn’t emphasize the importance of one parent over the other.
In addition, company leaders need to be careful when they talk about parental leave. If women are encouraged to take the time off and men receive hints that it would be better for them to skip their paternity leave, this discourages dads from taking time out and sends a clear message to moms that their roles and professional futures are viewed as less important.
As Mark Weinberger, global chairman and CEO of EY, pointed out after the company expanded its family leave benefits in 2016, “Women don’t want to be singled out, and men don’t want to be left out.” Gender-neutral messaging can go a long way to leveling the playing field for everyone. This is also a good way to signal to same-sex couples that your company supports them too since both parental roles are given equal weight.
Encourage new dads to share their experiences with paternity leave to help other understand the benefits
There’s an element of danger in being an early adopter of something like paternity leave, especially because it flies in the face of long-established cultural norms. That’s why it’s so important for men to see other fathers taking leave — and to see their company actively supporting them.
A study of paternity leave policies in Norway found that if new fathers had previously seen coworkers take paternity leave, they were 11% more likely to take it themselves. And as more and more dads take time off, it will only grow easier for others to follow in their footsteps.
American Express is one company that has mastered this approach. Since updating its family leave policies in 2017, the company has pushed for employees to take full advantage of the 20 weeks offered to both parents.
It launched an internal campaign called #dontmissamoment that encourages new dads to take the time off and share their experiences with one another while on leave. As part of this campaign, American Express, in partnership with Focus on Fatherhood, organizes breakfasts for dads at the company. At these meet-ups, participants can discuss topics like how to create a healthy work-life balance and how to connect with their kids.
Getting dads to talk with each other about their experiences — as well as with the company at large — creates a conversation about fatherhood that helps normalize the concept of paternity leave. It also establishes a support group for working dads that can help them after they’ve returned to the job.
This is a dialogue that leadership should also be involved in. When Mark Zuckerberg publicly announced in 2017 that he was taking two months off for the birth of his second child, stating that the office would still be standing when he got back, he sent a powerful message to Facebook employees that work and home life are both important. Having leaders show their support of your company’s policies, especially having them take time off themselves, makes it clear that taking paternity leave doesn’t equate with slacking off.
Consider sending care packages to new dads to welcome their little ones into the company family
One small step that any company can take is sending a care package to employees after the birth of their child. This emphasizes the importance of men as well as women looking after themselves and their families and acts as a friendly reminder that the company fully supports them taking time off.
Bank of America is one company that does this. All employees receive a New Parent Welcome Kit to celebrate an addition to the family. These kits include a baby thermometer and onesie, as well as details about the company’s benefits and available resources.
Gestures like this may sound simple, but they help explain why 96% of the eligible male employees at Bank of America take paternity leave.
Dove Men+Care also takes this approach, although it doesn’t just focus on its own employees. The personal care brand is championing paternity leave for fathers everywhere — so much so that it recently announced a $1 million fund to support men who don’t have access to paid paternity leave.
We’ve moved beyond a world where men celebrate fatherhood by passing out cigars in the waiting room. And companies are rethinking how they want to help employees mark this important passage too. Many are promoting the more tender aspects of parenthood and highlighting that it’s also the father’s responsibility to be a caregiver — which signals to all employees that this is the company’s stance.
Make it mandatory — requiring dads to take time off eliminates any stigma attached to paternity leave
Taking the steps above will allow you to establish a culture where employees don’t bat an eye at the concept of paternity leave. This will help fathers feel comfortable taking their full leave, safe in the knowledge that their colleagues and managers support them.
Of course, there’s one surefire way to ensure all eligible employees start taking family leave: Make it mandatory.
Mandatory paternity leave is catching on in the Scandinavian countries, and there are a handful of companies adopting it elsewhere. When every father of a newborn is taking full leave, the stigma of taking parental leave is eliminated — for men and women. And by requiring men to take leave, companies are also allowing moms to get back to work sooner, which closes some of the gender pay gap.
Since this is still an uncommon policy, early adopters could gain a distinct competitive advantage, while also paving the way for a healthier culture and happier employees.
Paternity leave is good for employees, for families, and for businesses
Study after study shows the benefits of paternity leave, which explains why companies are increasingly warming up to the idea of offering it. But until they address widespread cultural biases and outdated norms that persist in the workplace, many will see their policies met with skepticism and disregard.
For paternity leave policies to work, you have to prove they’re more than just talk. From widespread, thoughtful changes in how your company talks about family leave to small touches like care packages delivered to parents of newborns, start building a supportive community for fathers and your employees will follow your lead.
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