The Fight for Paternity Leave Is a Feminist One

There is a battle raging over how we define manhood — and the stakes are higher than ever for women.
By Kylie Gilbert
Nov 23, 2020 @ 10:00 am

This summer, I found my jaw almost on the floor when I read a quote from the former SoulCycle CEO, Melanie Whelan. "Paternity leave is for pussies," she allegedly told a male senior VP who planned to take two weeks off following the birth of his child.

Her vulgar suggestion that childcare is intrinsically feminine — and that spending time away from work to participate in it is, therefore, unmanly — seemed like the kind of antiquated slur one might expect in the Mad Men era. The fact that the comment was made in 2019 by a woman leading a brand that espouses female empowerment was hard to believe.

Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, was equally outraged and responded with an op-ed about the importance of destigmatizing paternity leave, a cause he’s been vocal about ever since his wife, Serena Williams, nearly died giving birth to their daughter, Olympia, three years ago. He was able to take four months off, per Reddit’s company policy, to “step into my role as her father and caregiver,” Ohanian tells InStyle. Taking this time off was not only crucial practically — Williams had a hole in her abdomen and couldn’t walk when she first came home from her emergency C-section — but it also set the tone for him sharing parenting responsibilities in the years to come. “When I’m feeding Olympia or doing her hair, it’s not about me taking over ‘mom duties,’ but me just being a parent, and that’s what this should come down to," Ohanian says. Furthermore, by upholding the notion that paternity leave is just as essential as maternity leave, it helps to break down the stereotypical gender roles that often hold women back from career success down the line, he argues. (Something we see playing out now as moms shoulder the weight of childcare during the pandemic and ultimately face career setbacks as a result.)

In other words, “the fight for paternity leave is a feminist fight,” Ohanian says.

The elephant in the room: Not everyone is a CEO, and 16 weeks off with pay is “far from the norm,” Ohanian says. In fact, only 9% of U.S. companies offer paid paternity leave at all. According to a 2019 report from Unicef, out of 41 of the richest countries in the world, the U.S. is the only one that lacks federally mandated paid parental leave. (26 of the 41 offer paid paternity leave and 40 offer paid maternity leave.) Currently, eight states — California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Oregon — as well as the District of Columbia have their own state-mandated paid leave policies, which pay employees a percentage of their salary. (Although, unsurprisingly, navigating state websites to ask for money doesn’t always prove easy.) While 12 weeks of job-protected leave is available under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for parents taking care of a biological or adopted child (or those who are acting in place of a parent), it only covers around 60% of the workforce — and it’s unpaid, which means many who are eligible simply can’t afford to take advantage of it.

FULLY PAID LEAVE RESERVED FOR FATHERS (WEEKS)

Credit: Jenna Brillhart

FMLA also leaves out those who don’t work for a company with more than 50 employees. “As a freelance writer who works for herself, I've enjoyed the benefits of flexibility in my work, but not the benefit of a maternity leave that would come with working for one of the bigger publishing houses," says Cassie Shortsleeve, 31, founder of Dear Sunday Motherhood, who will have two children under two come February. Her husband also doesn’t get any paid leave, and they were required to save in order for her to take off for a few months after each baby. “But it's still stressful and it's unfathomable to me that so many others wouldn't be able to make the choice we made,” she says. “I fear that without paid leave for both parents in a two-couple household, many millennials won't be able to choose parenthood due to financial constraints — and what a shame that would be.” Others are forced to give up that crucial time with their infants in order to make ends meet: One in four women in the U.S. returns to work less than two weeks after having a baby, according to a 2015 report, which is linked with negative health outcomes for both the mom and baby.

This is a problem that needs to be fixed with concrete policy change, Ohanian says, which is why he’s partnered with Dove Men+Care on the Pledge for Paternity Leave to bring awareness for the need for paid paternity leave and to advocate for long-overdue legislation in Washington D.C. Because the thing is: Many dads today want to be actively involved, Ohanian says.

“There’s a big disconnect between what the current generation of men having kids expect of themselves as fathers and what is, from a policy and corporate perspective, accorded to them,” explains Daniel Singley, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in men and new parenthood. “We as a culture and society are making more room for fathers to be much more highly engaged with their children, including infants and babies, than we have before, but we’re not making room for it in an important policy way,” he adds.

With President-elect Joe Biden in the White House, there’s some hope for that changing for American parents. As Vice President-elect Kamala Harris wrote in a recent op-ed for Parents, under their administration, they plan to provide people with up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave as well as paid sick days, so no one is “forced to choose between their jobs and their family.” With this step, parents would no longer be faced with an impossible choice that puts the U.S. far out of step with almost every other country in 2020.

The Cultural Stigma Around Paid Paternity Leave — and the Masculinity Wars

The other problem, though, goes beyond policy. Many men don’t take the leave offered to them due to fear that their careers may take a hit — a threat that may be expressed either outright or in more subtle ways. (According to the suit filed against SoulCycle, the male employee “submitted to the pressure and did not take leave.”)

Case in point: In Japan, where there is a generous six months full pay offered for fathers, but a work culture that highly discourages men from taking it, only 1 in 20 fathers took paid leave in 2017, according to Unicef’s Family-Friendly Policies report.

“I’ve seen men who prioritize being involved in the postpartum period face similar anxieties about threats to advancement and different kinds of discrimination — in flagrant violation of HR policies — in the workplace that we have traditionally seen moms experience,” Dr. Singley says.

Many new dads, grateful for what is being offered, don’t want to rock the boat and ask for more time off — even if they’re entitled to it. “My husband’s company offered two weeks of paid leave, which was so necessary. Taking care of a new baby while dealing with maternal hormones and sleep deprivation are overwhelming alone,” explains new mom Kaylan, 28. He took an additional week off through the state —  a new expansion of New Jersey’s paid leave allows 12 weeks off with pay (capped at 85% of their weekly pay, up to $881) for both parents within the first year — but his company insinuated he couldn’t take more than three weeks off in total, she adds.

The problem is, we’re still conditioned to believe that women are best suited to the job of taking care of a baby — despite the fact that research shows gender doesn’t matter and maternal instinct is largely a myth, Dr. Singley says. "Not seeing fathers as important in this early period has absolutely translated to policy and administrative decisions and different organizations’ cultures around taking leave," he adds.

But the fact that fathers' involvement in this time period makes a difference is hardly up for debate. Allowing fathers to have paid paternity leave means both men and women are significantly less likely to develop postpartum depression and anxiety, Dr. Singley says. And that’s not to mention the laundry list of benefits to the newborn child. “There’s very solid evidence to show that when fathers are highly involved during the first year, their children are better at emotional regulation, they have higher IQs, they tend to be more independent and adventurous, they have better vocabularies when they enter school, and they ultimately have less involvement in the juvenile justice system,” Dr. Singley explains.

Kathleen Gerson, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at NYU, agrees that how we structure our institutions to support caregiving is closely related to the “the battle raging over men’s place in society.” While we’ve expanded our views of what women can do — namely, having ambitions outside of simply taking care of others — we’re now in the process of doing that for men, she explains. And that involves reconstructing the very notion of masculinity.

All you have to do is look at the comparison between President Trump and President-elect Joe Biden to see that there’s a masculinity tug-of-war playing out in our culture today, Dr. Gerson says. “Trump puts on his makeup and performs masculinity of a certain kind, which is about not being sullied by warmth or human feelings,” she says. His notion of a successful man seems to be determined by one thing only: being a breadwinner. Don’t worry, women: “We’re getting your husbands back to work,” Trump said at a rally late last month in an attempt to woo suburban women.

On the other side of the debate, you have Biden, a man who openly embraces and kisses his adult son, despite being ridiculed by right-wing pundits. As Dr. Gerson points out, Biden was “thrust into a new vision of masculinity” after the tragic death of his first wife left him a single dad, and has become the poster man for how one can put breadwinning and caregiving on equal footing. “He shows how one can express their masculinity and humanity at the same time — and the positive ways that parental involvement can enhance a man’s sense of himself and the respect of others,” she says.

Credit: Jenna Brillhart

Paid Paternity Leave Is Good for Women’s Careers

These old-fashioned stereotypes about gender and parenting have led employers to assume men with children will work harder, and women with children will work less — and women ultimately pay for it, Ohanian points out. A paper published by Third Way back in 2014 found that while high-income men get a pay bump for having children — ‘the fatherhood bonus’ — low-income women experience ‘the motherhood penalty’.

“By advancing our policies for paid parental leave and providing more support and resources, such as publicly funded high-quality childcare for new parents, we can help find a balance between work and life for moms and dads, and in turn, help moms advance in their careers and achieve their own successes,” Ohanian says.

Research shows that offering paid parental leave to both male and female employees can help close the wage gap and put both parents on equal footing. In Sweden, where dads must use some of the generous 16 months leave offered, research shows a mother’s earnings can rise by about 7% for each additional month of leave that her spouse takes.

Policies like these implemented in Scandinavian countries "not only greatly increase the number of fathers who take leave, but they also lower the stigma around taking leave — and shift the culture," Dr. Gerson says. "Fathers who don’t take leave are seen as much more suspect than the fathers who do,” she says.

Unicef Family-friendly Policies Research, 2019
| Credit: Jenna Brillhart

The bottom line: “When policies allow for more egalitarian choices, and actively support them and nudge people to do them, the culture of manhood begins to change,” Dr. Gerson says.

At the end of the day, although the fight for paid family leave is still an uphill battle, with Joe Biden in the White House, there’s renewed hope for this becoming a reality.

“It helps to think of these shifts as an iceberg. An iceberg can be building under the water for eons but remain invisible but then suddenly it can pop up above the water,” Dr. Gerson says. “I don’t think things will change quickly but I do believe they are possible.”

Creative Direction: Erin Glover; Illustration and Animation Design: Jenna Brillhart