In the evolving landscape of workplace dynamics, the concept of paternity leave has emerged as a significant point of discussion. While women have historically faced challenges related to maternity leave, the spotlight is now also on the rights and expectations surrounding fathers.
As companies strive for inclusivity and equity, understanding the nuances of paternity leave becomes paramount.
Employers’ embrace of paternity leave, and indeed parental leave more generally, isn’t a longstanding tradition. Indeed, women have long faced implicit or even explicit discrimination for past, present, or anticipated future pregnancies or childcare obligations—a phenomenon known as the maternal wall bias.
Only relatively recently have attitudes started to change, not just for women but also for men. Increasingly, companies offer and even encourage employees to take parental leave.
“This is the first generation of fathers who want to be present to bond with their infants and take advantage of parental leave policies,” says Barbara Palmer, founder of Broad Perspective Consulting and the Your Fourth Trimester program. “The lack of precedent can send the wrong message to employees who want to benefit from documented policies or state-supported leave,” she says. That’s the starting point. “If there is a policy or family leave provided in a jurisdiction, fathers must be encouraged to take the time provided without penalty, and without fear of it impacting their work or career trajectory.”
Despite these shifts, Palmer says, it’s still more common for companies to offer leave for mothers than for fathers.
“There are companies that offer equal time for both mothers and fathers, but most companies offer different leave periods for birthing and non-birthing parents, or for maternity vs paternity leave,” Palmer says. Still, she adds, “Whatever time is afforded should be encouraged and supported, with planned transitions out and back from leave.”
Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) have become increasingly important considerations in the corporate world in recent years. While DEIB is most often thought of in the context of greater support for women and people of color, a truly inclusive approach to HR also includes giving men the support they need to feel a sense of belonging in the workplace.
That support includes allowing new fathers to spend crucial time with their newborn children.
“There is data that supports the positive impact of fathers being present in the early days of welcoming a child,” notes Palmer. “And the non-birthing parent also supports the birthing parent through active co-parenting and caregiving. A parent’s desire to share in the responsibilities of a newborn shouldn’t correlate to a lack of work dedication or their potential or desire for upward mobility.”
Many employers and employees alike may be surprised to learn that it’s a legal requirement for employers to provide parental leave for both new mothers and new fathers. Specifically, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of leave for new parents, and that includes parents who have newly adopted a child, as well.
But that doesn’t mean that leave has to be paid, at least under the FMLA. Individual states have their own parental leave requirements, which may place additional obligations on employers above and beyond the requirements of the FMLA.
“The concept of paternity leave is relatively new in the US,” notes employment attorney John Mullan of Rudy Exelrod Zieff & Lowe, LLP. This is reflected in U.S. law, he says, with the FMLA requiring covered employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid paternity leave. Still, he says, only about 9 states, including California, currently provide for paid paternity leave.
“Regardless of whether the paternity leave is paid or unpaid, the laws generally state that an employer must provide paternity leave to an eligible employee, cannot retaliate against him for requesting or taking the leave, and must reinstate him in the job he had prior to the leave,” Mullan says.
Not Universally Embraced
While attitudes toward paternity leave have been rapidly changing, there are many organizations and managers who still have a more conservative view of fathers taking time off for newborn children. However, those who are reluctant to embrace paternity leave risk not only running afoul of the legal requirements discussed above but also losing employees who would prefer to work for a company that’s more supportive of employee family obligations and work/life balance.
Palmer notes that long-held biases about gender roles may predispose a new father to unnecessary judgment for taking parental leave. “Instead of bias, firms that offer the leave should anticipate and expect employees to take the time allotted,” Palmer says. “It speaks to the culture of the organization and makes a greater statement than claims of ‘family friendly’ or offering ‘great work/life balance.’”
“There are plenty of cultures that are operating in the dark ages, those who are not forward thinking or progressive,” says Theresa Balsiger, Vice President of Candidate Relations at Carex Consulting Group. “If taking parental leave impacts your ability for promotion and advancement, is that a place that you really want to lend your time and talent to? What happens when you want to take off for a field trip or need to pick up a sick child from school?”
Those antiquated attitudes can also land employers in legal trouble.
“Unfortunately, with the growth in the number of men seeking to take some form of paternity leave, we’re seeing a corresponding growth in the number of intake calls we get from men who feel they’ve been retaliated against because they took a paternity leave,” says Mullan. “It seems that a stigma still exists where men are expected to be at work rather than taking leave to assist and bond with a new child. As a result, we’ve had clients who were terminated or bumped off the promotion track in the wake of paternity leaves. We expect to see more of these types of cases as more and more men seek to take advantage of paternity leave rights.”
In fact, this shift has also caused a shift in the language used to talk about maternity or paternity leave to a more gender-neutral term: parental leave.
The shift in attitudes toward parental leave signifies a broader movement in workplace inclusivity and equity. As companies grapple with changing norms, it’s essential to prioritize the well-being of all employees, regardless of gender.
Embracing parental leave, including paternity leave, not only aligns with legal mandates but also fosters a culture of understanding and support, ultimately benefiting both the organization and its workforce.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.