A utopia in which working parents can balance careers and kids can’t be achieved here on Earth, or at least not without some tradeoffs. That’s the conclusion some reached after the New York Times rounded up studies showing that policies such as longer paid maternity leaves and affordable child care can help working mothers but also hold them back in the workplace. Among all developed countries, the Times found, better maternity leaves and flexible work protections have led to more women entering the workforce but fewer women in leadership roles. Here in the U.S., even our paltry guarantee of unpaid maternity leave has made women less likely to get promotions.
But these studies, aren’t indictments of workplace policies such as paid leave and subsidized child care. They are indictments of crafting these policies under the false assumption that women are the only ones who need them.
For example, a law in Chile requiring employers to provide child care for children under the age of 2 only applies to those companies with a certain share of female employees. In Spain, there’s a law giving workers with young children the right to ask for fewer hours, but it’s almost entirely women who ask. American women are a third more likely to take unpaid leave than men. Many families can’t afford to have both parents out on unpaid leave or working fewer hours to be home with children at one time, and it’s the mother who is still nearly always the one who scales back.
Well-crafted policy can change all of that. One policy in particular could do an inordinate amount to shift culture and how we see working fathers: paid paternity leave, with a use-it-or-lose-it clause.
While American men are far less likely than women to take time off for the arrival of their children, there’s evidence that if they have access to paid leave, they use what they’re given. Only three states guarantee paid leave to both parents; in California, the first state to institute its program, the number of fathers taking leave doubled after it went into effect, and they took longer periods away from work.
This is great news, because paternity leave has lasting positive effects. Fathers who take two or more weeks off after their children are born end up more involved in their children’s care nine months later—feeding them, bathing them, changing diapers—compared with fathers who don’t take leave. Later in their children’s lives, men who took leave are still more committed and competent fathers. And when fathers are more involved in parenting, it means mothers have more time and energy to commit to paid work.
But the magic really starts to happen when paid leave policies are designed to push men into taking time off. A few years ago, Sweden redesigned its policy so that a father has to take at least two months off before his child turns 8 or he forfeits his benefits; after the change, 85 percent of fathers took leave.* Meanwhile, Swedish mothers’ incomes rise 7 percent for every month of leave their husbands take.
Quebec has made a similar move, setting aside five weeks of paid leave that only fathers can take. Fathers who were eligible for the so-called “daddy quota” increased the time they spent doing household and child-rearing tasks by 23 percent, while mothers became more likely to be employed full time, worked longer hours, and earned higher incomes.
Paternity leave alone won’t completely change an economy that rewards working men for becoming fathers and penalizes women who become mothers. But it can change the way we see working fathers and how they see themselves. That also means we start to reevaluate parenthood at work, which benefits women who have always been assumed to be the default caretakers. We begin to assume that everyone can become a parent, and the importance of that shift can’t be understated.
*Correction, June 1, 2015: This post originally stated that in Sweden, a father has to take at least two months off in order for his family to receive any paid leave. A father must take at least two months before his child turns 8 or he forfeits his benefits.