Paid leave for fathers, too, please


This is the fifth in a series of blog posts on paid family leave jointly sponsored by AEI and Brookings. Aparna Mathur at AEI and Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution are the co-directors of the AEI-Brookings Project on Paid Family Leave. The project includes a diverse group of individuals from different organizations with expertise on this topic. Following our initial blog to tee off the series, we have invited each of the working group members to offer their thoughts on the topic.

Over the next few weeks, you will get to read their opinions and offer your comments. We invite you to engage with us as a new administration takes office and charts out policies on these topics. This will help us better inform policymakers of the practical day-to-day realities of living in a country where millions lack access to paid leave at the birth of a child or to meet other caregiving needs.

The idea of paid leave is popular, as survey after survey shows. But in the minds of many, including President Trump, paid leave is seen as a women’s issue. This is wrong, wrong-headed, and regressive.

There does seem to be stronger public support for slightly longer periods of maternity leave than paternity leave, perhaps in large part thanks to the enduring social norm that men be the primary family breadwinners while women the care-takers. But the gap is not very big (and interestingly narrows further when the survey asks about fathers first), as the American Family Survey has shown:


Americans, then, seem to be reasonably egalitarian in their views about access to paid leave for men and women after the birth, adoption, or fostering of a new child. Policymakers need to catch up.

Kids (and moms!) benefit when dads take time off

Paid parental leave could help with a series of 21st century challenges. More parents, mothers and fathers, are now juggling work and care; America’s female labor force participation is lagging behind our international peers; children’s health is strongly associated with longer maternal leave periods; and so on. But too often, fathers are an afterthought.

Fathers are much more likely to report wanting to work full time than mothers, but they are also twice as likely to report that they spend too little time with their children. If men are serious about wanting to play a larger role in childcare while earning a decent income, they need the workplace flexibility necessary to tend to both work and family needs. Paid paternity leave can play an important role here. Fathers who take time off work at and around childbirth are more likely to be involved in childcare later in the child’s life. Children whose fathers are more involved in their early years perform better than those with fathers who are less involved on a variety of measures, including improved language skills, cognitive test scores, and social development.

Paternal involvement in childcare is not only good for dads and kids: it is good for women. The portion of fathers reporting that they have taken significant time off of work to care for a child or family member is just 60 percent that of mothers. Well-designed paternity leave policies can encourage a more equitable division of childcare. By boosting the role of fathers at home, paid paternity leave may also improve women’s earnings by enabling mothers to play a larger role in the labor market. An analysis of parental leave-taking in Sweden found that mothers’ incomes rise by an average of 7 percent for each month of paternity leave taken by the father.

Working fathers might need a little nudge

Despite these clear benefits, paid paternity leave is still fairly atypical in the U.S. Of parents taking leave in 2012, only 13 percent of men received pay while away from work, compared to 21 percent of women. Fathers still spend only about half as much time as mothers caring for and bonding with children. As Isabel Sawhill and I argued in “Men’s Lib!”, while the gender revolution has been largely successful at promoting women’s roles in the workplace, there has been less progress in nudging men toward traditionally female roles, like childcare.

Paid leave available to fathers can address gender disparities by increasing fathers’ involvement in childcare. But policy design matters a great deal. The length, reimbursement rate, and transferability of the benefit all influence fathers’ leave-taking behavior. An OECD analysis found that fathers were more likely to participate in childcare if they had access to “use-it-or-lose-it” leave benefits, i.e. ones that were non-transferrable to the partner. A separate analysis of father-specific paid leave entitlements across OECD countries found that the introduction of a two-month “bonus period” available only when both parents take leave increased the proportion of children with a father who used leave from 8.8 percent to 32 percent. In the long run, it would be preferable to have entirely gender-neutral policies. But in order to shift social norms and employer attitudes, some father-focused leave may be necessary.

Dear Mr. President: Not just women, please

Right now, the challenge is to persuade policymakers to see paid leave as a men’s issue. A maternity leave-only policy, like that endorsed by Donald Trump during his presidential campaign, runs the risk of putting back the clock in terms of gender roles. We need a paid leave strategy for the 21st century. And that means including men as equal partners.