U.S. Culture and Policy to Dads: Your Place Is in the Office

When work culture and public policy fail to support men’s involvement in the domestic sphere, how can anyone "have it all"?

When work culture and public policy fail to support men’s involvement in the domestic sphere, how can anyone "have it all"? Father son via Shutterstock

On the heels of Father’s Day 2013, corporate and public policies are still telling fathers that their rightful place is in the office. According to a piece last week in the Wall Street Journal, 85 percent of U.S. firms do not offer any paid leave for fathers, and 94 percent of states do not offer paid family leave for fathers. There is currently no federal paid paternity (or maternity) leave.

While some larger firms have begun to shift their policies—Yahoo! President and CEO Marissa Mayer recently doubled her employees’ paternity and maternity leave—overall, support for dads’ time with their children remains sparse.

“We think it’s great that some companies are offering paid leave and benefits to new fathers as a means of attracting and retaining talent, but we are also mindful that that is the exception and not the rule,” Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families, told Rewire. “Most new fathers don’t have paid leave when their children are born.”

According to a Department of Labor survey conducted last year, a mere 11.4 percent of work sites offer paid paternity leave (the Society for Human Resources Management found that the rate is 15 percent). By contrast, 50 percent have paid maternity leave.

These policy disparities neglect the critical role fathers play in families and their children’s lives, and how even small investments like three weeks of paid time off can help families down the road. When work culture and public policy fail to support men’s involvement in the domestic sphere, how can anyone “have it all”? In her 2000 book Father Courage, feminist author Suzanne Braun Levine explored the challenges faced by men who do make the unorthodox choice of putting family first.

In her research, Levine found, as she wrote at the Huffington Post:

…that most felt they lost the respect of their male colleagues for their wimpy preoccupations and got almost as much scorn from their wives at their clumsy attempts to get childcare right. One father told me about the time he took his infant daughter to the playground on a weekday, the mothers who were there with their kids called the cops because the sight of a man with a little girl was so unusual that they feared he was a pedophile.

Since 2000, this parenting culture has shifted, she says: “Fathers with kids have emerged as a common sight, even on weekdays, wiping runny noses, carrying Snoopy backpacks, and pushing double strollers side by side. Yet, while the family scene has opened up dramatically, the workplace is still inhospitable to the efforts of parents.”

The cultural and policy disparity is even more unfortunate given evidence showing that more fathers want to take time off to be with their infants and families—and they still feel they simply can’t. “Sixty percent of fathers in dual-earner couples reported feeling conflict between work and family responsibilities in 2008,” the WSJ article points out, “compared with 35% who felt that way in 1977.”

And some evidence also reveals the positive benefits of enabling new fathers to take leave. California’s paid family leave program has been in effect for over a decade. A 2012 report analyzing the program’s impact found that new fathers were more able to bond with their children. In 2011-12, 29 percent of fathers who took paid family leave reported that they experienced an improved ability to bond with their infants. “Research also shows that when fathers are involved in beginning of their children’s lives they are more likely to be involved in their children’s lives later,” Shabo said.

New Jersey’s family leave insurance program, enacted in 2008, provides benefits to employees at all companies. Since New Jersey’s program went into effect, in July 2009, $281.2 million has been paid out for nearly 100,000 claims, most of which are for parents to bond with infants.

At the federal level, there are increasing murmurs of paid family leave being tackled in the coming years, though such a federal program is likely to be an uphill battle given past reactions to President Obama’s attempt at including paid family leave in his budget proposals.

“I do think we will see the paid family leave bill introduced in the fall, celebrating the implementation anniversary of [the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)],” Shabo said. “Rep. Rosa DeLauro is committed to sponsoring the legislation in the house, and Sen. Gillibrand has been talking about it—she may sponsor the bill in the Senate. This is part of a larger subset of economic security policies that are bubbling up in political conversation.”

Fathers belong to the domestic sphere just as much as mothers do—and it is time for workplace and public policy to catch up to this truth.