In the US, only 40% of workers—men or women—have access to and can afford to take unpaid leave guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA).
Compare that with Sweden, Norway, or Iceland, where every parent has access to over a year of paid parental leave, and well over 90% of eligible men take some portion of that time.
Why the gap? Too often, we think it’s because men don’t want to take parental leave, that they’re either too committed to their jobs or traditional gender roles that exempt them from the diaper-changing realities of parenthood.
But according to recent research by the think tank Promundo in partnership with Dove Men+Care, nearly three of five dads say they would be willing to change jobs if it meant they could be involved in the early weeks or months of caring for a new child. Fathers strongly agree that both genders should make taking all their parental leave a top priority.
And the payoff is great. When men do take parental leave, they’re happier, their partners are happier, and their children are happier, too. Nearly nine out of 10 dads (87%) report being more satisfied with their lives when they can be the kind of caregivers they want to be.
Why Aren’t More Dads Taking Leave?
So it’s not really the case that fathers don’t want parental leave. It’s not a “demand” question. The demand is there. So why don’t they take it?
In many cases, it’s a “supply” question. For far too many men, parental leave isn’t even available. Nearly three-fourths of the men surveyed (73%) agreed that there is little workplace support for fathers.
And remember that we have no national policy of paid parental leave—not even for women. The U.S. is one of only four countries in the world that offer no paid parental leave to anyone. (The other three, in case you’re curious, are Lesotho, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea.)
And let’s face it: For most workers, unpaid leave is synonymous with no leave at all. As a result, three-fourths of men, and just over half of all women, said they’d have to work at least part time during parental leave.
In the absence of a national policy of paid parental leave, some municipalities and states are stepping up to offer parental leave to their municipal employees, matching some private corporations that are also developing parental leave policies.
Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis all now offer paid parental leave. If we preach about family values, we have to practice valuing families by putting resources in place to support them.
But even where parental leave is available, men still face tremendous pressure not to take it—from other men. When I interviewed dozens of men a few years ago for the Harvard Business Review, many told me stories of wanting to avail themselves of a policy their company offered, only to face colleagues who questioned their commitments to their jobs, or supervisors who said things like, “We’ll put you on the daddy track” and “Well, you’ll never make partner.”
Men who seek to truly balance work and family face a barrage of disapproval based on negative and antiquated stereotypes.
How We Can Make it Happen
So if men are going to be able to do what they want to do, which is to be fully present in the lives of their infants, they are going to need parental leave.
We all can support that by insisting that unions, municipalities, companies, states, and yes, eventually, the federal government institute paid parental leave for all.
And we also can stop the disapproving banter or workplace penalties as men seek to do what any good about-to-be father would do. Instead of, “What’s wrong with him?” we might say, “You go, man, you have the right priorities for this company!” A man who is committed to his children is a man I’d want to work beside.
So this year, vote for candidates who support parental leave—for both women and men. Agitate for it in your workplaces and communities. Insist that companies offer it to their employees.
This article was originally published on Fast Company. It has been republished here with permission.
Photo of dad at home with baby courtesy of LWA/Dann Tardif/Getty Images.