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America's troubled relationship with paid time off for dads

Alexis Ohanian on paid family leave
Tech entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian on paid family leave advocacy 07:51

As U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's paternity leave comes under fire — with some going so far as to question his work ethic — experts say paid leave for fathers is more necessary than ever.

Yet while polls show that most Americans support paid parental leave for men, cultural biases continue to obstruct its adoption despite research indicating that such policies help with everything from family finances to improving gender equity in the workplace. 

It's still far from the norm for fathers in the U.S. to claim even a few weeks of unpaid leave: Only 5% of new dads take at least two weeks of parental leave, according to research from Ball State sociology professor Richard Petts, who told USA Today that he was drawn to the issue when his first child was born. At the time, Petts was told that if he wanted to take more than a couple days off to care for his newborn, he would need a medical note saying his wife was unavailable to care for their child. 

Paternity leave remains an outlier in the U.S. — the only developed nation that doesn't have a federal law mandating paid leave for parents. For workers, access to paid leave is typically determined by an employer's benefits package; even among Fortune 500 companies, parental leave isn't a given. About 7 in 10 Fortune 500 companies offer some sort of paid leave for new parents, but fathers are generally considered secondary to mothers, Petts' research has found

Stigma for taking leave

"We expect that fathers should be financial providers first, and so there is a stigma attached to valuing family over work by taking paternity leave," Petts said in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. "There have been a few studies (including one I recently just published with colleagues) showing that workers are perceived as less committed to their jobs when they take parental leave."

He added, "That is clearly what happened here," referring to recent criticism of Buttigieg by Fox News' Tucker Carlson for taking time off this summer to help look after his newborn twins.

Even so, Americans at the same time are voicing support for paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers, Petts noted. About 7 in 10 people say dads should get paid parental leave, compared with 8 in 10 who said the same for mothers, according to Pew Research.

Other research highlights the benefits of paternity leave, including strengthening relationships with spouses and children and improving family finances. A proposal to extend paid parental leave to all Americans is a cornerstone of President Biden's American Families plan, which would provide 12 weeks of paid parental, family and medical leave within a decade. 

"I'm not going to apologize"

America's lack of paid parental leave puts it in a unique category: The world's wealthiest nation finds itself grouped with Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland as the only countries that don't guarantee paid family leave, according to Quartz. 

Buttigieg highlighted that discrepancy in defending his decision to take paternity leave. "We're pretty much the only country left that doesn't have some sort of national policy on paid leave," he told CNN on Sunday.

Of his critics, he noted, "I'm not going to apologize to Tucker Carlson or anyone else."

A March study from consulting firm McKinsey pointed to a range of benefits for paternity leave policies, with dads who take time off reporting stronger bonds with their spouses and kids. More surprising may be the financial impact of offering paid leave. Household finances are shored up because the onus isn't only on women to take time off to care for children, McKinsey said. It cited a study that found moms' income rose about 7% for each month that their child's father spent at home on paternity leave. 

Providing both paternity and maternity leave also normalizes child care for all parents. That's important for workplace equity, since it reduces the career stigma that women can face if they have children, experts say. McKinsey recommended that companies provide the same leave benefits to men as to women: "One in four of the fathers in our study wished that they had longer paid paternity leave," the study noted.

Texas representative on front lines of fight for parental leave in America 05:23

Even so, the criticism of Buttigieg isn't surprising, Petts of Ball State added. "His is just one of many high-profile cases where the media has criticized men for taking paternity leave (e.g., Daniel Murphy of the Mets was criticized a few years ago for taking time off during the season)," he noted. "In our culture, we perceive childcare to be the responsibility of mothers and not fathers."

What's more unusual is the case of same-sex male couples taking parental leave, Petts said. 

"If men are not supposed to take leave, who cares for the child in a gay couple?" he noted. "These gender norms are so ingrained and prevalent that we as a society have a hard time dealing with individuals who don't strictly adhere to these traditional gender norms."

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