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Why Don’t Men Take Paternity Leave?

And what can we do to change that?

Published on: December 16, 2021


I cannot be the only person who’s noticed a rise in babywearing dads.

From the farmers market to the diaper aisle at Target, dudes across America are rockin’ babies like nobody’s business.

Adorable? Absolutely. About dang time? For sure. A sign of progress toward more equitable parenting roles? Perhaps.

Dads may be taking on more responsibility — which, of course, is a step in the right direction — but during the crucial first days , weeks and months after birth, they’re not carrying their weight nor getting support to do so. When it comes to paternity leave, the U.S. is seriously lagging in both policy and individual action. 

A study conducted by the Boston College Center for Work & Family showed that while three out of four fathers desire to spend more time with their children and two out of three fathers believe caregiving should be split 50-50 with their spouse, a staggering 76 percent of fathers take only one week of leave time or less following the birth or adoption of a new child.

A majority of fathers still take only about one day of leave time for every month the typical mother takes. The Brookings Institution reports that the portion of fathers who have taken significant time off work to care for a child or family member is 24 percent compared to 39 percent of mothers.

Kimble Snyder, a director working on the paid leave program at the global action tank Panorama, says the problem is as much about opportunity and access to paid leave programs as it is about equity, changing historical conceptions of family roles and breaking down the stigmas associated with men taking time off work.

“There is a historical context that is hard to break, but with a shift in workplace makeup, we’re seeing more demand for these policies,” Snyder says. “The frontier of these challenges is dealing with the culture around taking these opportunities.” 

What gives?

Even when dads want to take on a more prominent role postpartum, they often can't.

While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year (women are one third more likely to take advantage of this than men are), the FMLA is problematic. Even though these protections cover 60 percent of the workforce, many simply can’t afford to take advantage of it. 

There’s overwhelming support for paid paternity leave; 69 percent of Americans support such a policy for dads.

Equally troubling is that the U.S. is one of only eight developed countries without a mandated paid family leave program, which leaves it up to individual states and employers to decide. Currently only eight states — California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Washington, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon and Washington D.C.— require paid family leave. Nationally, only 9 percent of men have jobs that offer paid paternity leave to every male employee. 

And yet, there’s overwhelming support for paid paternity leave (69 percent of Americans support such a policy for dads), and myriad benefits to children and families, businesses and the economy — so, why aren’t more men taking this crucial time off when it’s offered? 

A few reasons

“There is a stigma to being away from work, especially for men,” says Adrienne Schweer of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Paid Family Leave. “Men tend not to take leave because they see the impact it has on a woman's career and earnings, they see how the absence causes someone else to pick up additional work to fill in and they don’t feel their leadership supports them in taking the leave.” 

But Schweer is hopeful. "In the 25 years since Congress passed the FMLA to provide unpaid leave for workers, the changing economy, gender dynamics, costs of childcare and the structure of the family unit are making it increasingly challenging for many families to care for their loved ones while maintaining financial security," she says. "This is elevating a national conversation about the need for an inclusive federal paid family leave policy."

We’ve seen it. In recent years, large companies including Walmart, Starbucks, CVS Health and Nestle have adopted or expanded paid leave policies for both moms and dads. But there's more work to be done if we want parents to actually feel secure enough to take advantage of those benefits. What can you do?

Demand leave from employers — and be specific

“Change has to come from both sides: We have to be strong enough to say what we need, and our employers need to listen,” says Snyder. Employers of businesses large and small have their sights set on attracting top talent — if that talent demands access and equity in terms of family leave, employers will have to become more competitive with what they offer. 

This concept doesn’t just apply to the creation of policies themselves, but how the policies are constructed. Among the participants in the Boston College study, “Fathers also cited the importance of flexible work options to facilitate their continued caregiving role with their children and support for the ability to take paternity time off as needed, rather than in consecutive weeks following the birth.” 

Get loud

“We need Americans to start sharing how unpaid leave is hindering the ability to ensure their child has a healthy start to life,” says Schweer. "Our federal leaders are on the brink of making transformative change, and they need to hear from people across the country that a national paid family leave policy is critical and needed.”

Snyder added that men talking with each other about the need for and benefits of paternity leave, as well as their personal experience with it, can be “an incredibly powerful statement that breaks down stigma.”

Lead by example 

Snyder stressed that for men in leadership and management roles, “strong signals from the top” are of the utmost importance. When employees see leadership taking time off when they need it, and encouraging others to do so, it creates a sense of normalcy that fosters a culture of encouragement and support. This approach can have an exponential effect on participation. 

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in August 2018, and updated in December 2021.

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