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Paid Leave: The Best Gift for Father's Day

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"Do I abandon my family or abandon the job that feeds my family?" That's how one man described the dilemma many fathers face in America today.

For a long time in our culture, being a good dad meant providing for your kids. But it also means -- and many kids and dads agree -- being there for your kids. Unfortunately, outmoded policies often make being there at key moments, including birth and illness, the very thing that harms a dad's ability to provide.

This week at the White House Working Fathers Forum, a range of experts -- dads, researchers, corporate and government leaders, even professional athletes -- gathered to speak about what dads need.

Nearly every other country in the world except ours, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea assure some form of paid leave. As Jason Fuhrman, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, pointed out, only 15 percent of employers offer formal paid paternity leave, a figure that has remained flat since 2010. Those who do, reap the results. Fuhrman said when Fortune 500 companies announced new work-life balance policies, their stock prices rose, with an even greater bump if the company was a pacesetter.

But there's good news: states are leading the way, corporate leaders are increasingly supporting policies that value families, and attitudes are changing.

Sec. Perez pointed to the leading role that states have taken in winning paid leave and the importance of the State Paid Leave Fund, a $5 million item in the Department of Labor budget which the Senate Appropriations Committee has included in their bill. This would allow states to apply for competitive grants to help cover the start-up costs of developing a family leave insurance fund. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island all have such programs, with boosts to job retention and child health, and either positive or neutral impact on business.

"Predictions that the world would come to end proved incorrect," Secretary Perez said about existing state funds. He called on attendees to continue this movement.

Many employers are already adopting the policies we need because it's the smart as well as the right thing to do. A growing body of evidence shows paid leave is good for worker loyalty, morale, productivity and the bottom line. And increasing numbers of corporate leaders agree. As Delta Emerson of Ryan Accounting put it, the list of countries without paid leave "is one list we don't want to be on."

And researchers and engaged fathers at the White House event agreed that there's been a big shift in the attitudes of men toward parenting. Dr. Kyle Pruett, a clinical psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine, pointed to a recent ad council survey showing 86 percent of current fathers want to be more involved with their children than their fathers were with them. Said Pruett, "Forty years ago [attending] this meeting would have cost career points."

Several speakers noted how opportunities and stigma for men vary by class, race and sexual orientation. Sociologist Kathryn Edin described an Austin man who said, "I want to give my kids the world but I can't even feed myself." Often, ads make many men look incompetent as fathers. Black and Latino men are seen as dangerous and predatory. Gay dads often have more barriers to getting parental leave. And many low-income men grew up doing laundry and other household chores because everyone had to pitch in.

Scott Coltrane has studied fathers for three decades and has found that fatherhood brings a wage premium while motherhood brings a penalty -- unless dads act like moms and are active parents. Then they, like women, are judged to be "less serious workers" and penalized in their pay.

Carl Cooper, former chief diversity officer, K&L Gates, notes that many African-American kids do not grow up in a "Leave It to Beaver" world. "If you had a father who worked, you appreciated it," he said at the White House. His father did have employment -- but never attended Cooper's sports events, or put his arm around his shoulder. Like many men today, Carl Cooper wanted to be a different model.

So does Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy. He credited his powerful union for winning access to some paid paternity leave, and famously missed a game to be at the birth of his son Noah. "When Noah asks me, what was it like when [he] was born, ... it will go so much farther that I was the one who cut his umbilical cord," Murphy said. "Long after I'm not able to play baseball, I'll be a father and a husband."

The White House event showed that we have a long way to go before truly valuing fatherhood in America. But it reminded us that we're on our way -- states are paving the way, with the support of working fathers, and companies are responding to the growing business case for such policies. This Father's Day, let us recommit to building workplaces that allow all fathers to provide the exceptional care their kids deserve.