Last year UN Women created the "He for She" campaign as a way of engaging men and boys to "stand up in addressing the inequalities and discrimination faced by women and girls." I submit that males are already deeply embedded in issues of gender inequality, although they may not immediately recognize it. When it comes to parenting, society still has pretty rigid social roles about who should be doing what--and it is constraining all of us.
Paternity leave in the U.S. is all but non-existent. The Society for Human Resources Management recently found only 12% of companies offer paid paternity leave . And a third of fathers report having no access to leave of any kind (including unpaid) after the birth of a child. This may not surprise many readers, indeed more people may object to my call for instantiating paternity leave than support it. There are two social phenomena that underlie our collective inability to support the importance of paternity leave.
First, the U.S. is notoriously stingy when it comes to any parental leave. Of 185 countries surveyed by the International Labour Organization only the U.S. and Papua New Guinea have failed to pass any federally mandated paid parental leave. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 13 percent of full-time employees in the U.S. had access to any paid family leave in 2012.
Second, and more interesting to me, the U.S. has made precious little progress in updating traditional gender roles. My research shows, for example, that despite the fact that women make up almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs and 60 percent of the college graduates, on average both men and women want the husband to should be the primary breadwinner. Our idealized mental models for gender roles reflect a Leave it to Beaver mentality, where men belong in the workplace not at home taking care of kids. In a recent study, 86 percent of fathers said they would not take advantage of paternity leave, for both financial reasons as well as unstated expectations that constrained them from exercising leave options.
Why do I care about this? Partly, I care because when fathers take paternity leave they are more engaged with parenting throughout childhood. For example, controlling for income and education, dads who took time off at birth were almost 50 percent more likely to read to their children as toddlers.
The other reason I care is because I predict that once a significant number of fathers are exercising parental leave it will create more workplace equity. Currently, parents of either gender face a "mommy tax" when they take time off or reduce their load to care for children. Even when you take into account factors like part-time work and industry, mothers earn 5 to 6 percent less than women without children. For both men and women, the penalty for having children stems from cultural biases that reduce wages and result in poor job evaluations. I assert this would change if men, as a whole, were to take meaningful childcare leaves. It would be seen as a necessary, valid rite-of-parental passage. One of the best things women can do to help their cause for workplace equity is champion paternity leave. Maybe it's time for a "she for he" campaign.