THE BLOG
04/07/2014 03:40 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2014

Are Fathers Punished at Work Too?

The recent uproar over Mets player Daniel Murphy's three-day paternity leave shows that macho culture still has strong roots. Perhaps this is not surprising in the arena of professional sports. But the overt chest-thumping statements by some sports commentators and the ra-ra chorus on Twitter ("Paternity leave is for woman," "wtf is paternity leave?? what a joke") suggests that these sentiments have a wider audience.

We all know that many women lose out at work when they become mothers. But what about fathers?

Studies show that those making hiring decisions (even if subconsciously) view men with families as favorable hires. Researchers believe that, to some, having a family is a sign of reliability, at least for men. But there's a catch: The same research shows that these men are penalized if they try to spend time with their families.

Indiana University sociology professor Dr. Stephen Benard surveyed the research in written testimony submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC):

One study (Wayne and Cordeiro 2003) finds that men who took leave to care for a child or an elder parent were seen as worse 'organizational citizens' than those who did not take leave. In addition, a study by Rudman and Mescher (forthcoming) finds that men who requested family leave were perceived as weaker, less masculine, and at greater risk for being demoted or downsized. This suggests that the motherhood penalty may be more accurately described as a caregiver penalty.

Before we go any further, let me be clear that women in the workplace often face far greater discrimination, especially when they become mothers and try to spend time with their children.

In short: Men can be fathers, just not involved ones.

There's even more bad news. When a father loses his job, he can also suffer if he tries to stay home with the kids.

Dr. Peggy Drexler, a research psychologist and psychology professor, has written that all is not well in the increasing percentage of homes with a female breadwinner, noting "a study by the Council on Contemporary Families that found that although the social pressures that once discouraged women from working outside the home have fallen, the pressure on husbands to be the primary earner remain."

According to U.S. Census data, the number of stay-at-home dads has increased from 81,000 in 2001, to 176,000 in 2011. She notes that in families where the woman is the breadwinner, both the man and woman can struggle to let go of the notion that the man should bring home the bacon. This is true even among couples that intellectually understand that these beliefs are anachronistic.

While antiquated social norms may be slow to change, laws against gender discrimination apply equally to men and women. For example,companies with 15 or more employees (the threshold for applying many anti-discrimination laws) cannot lawfully demote or fire a man simply because he seeks time away from work to be with his child. That is also barred by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which applies to employers with 50 or more employees.

Some men are fighting -- and winning -- discrimination using these laws. In 2001, a Maryland state police officerwon a $375,000 jury verdict when the police department denied his attempt to take FMLA leave to care for his newborn child. In determining that he was not eligible to take leave because he did not qualify as a primary caregiver, his female supervisor said, "God decided only women can give birth," and "[you cannot be the primary caregiver] unless your wife is in a coma or dead."

More recently, Ariel Ayanna, a young rising male associate in a big law firm in Massachusetts, sued claiming that he was fired after taking FMLA leave to care for his wife, who was suffering from mental issues, and to help care for their young children. Ayanna claimed the law firm treated him poorly because he chose to be a caregiver for his family suggesting he did not fit into what he called a "macho" company culture.

And in a case that received significant media attention, CNN reporter Josh Levs brought a gender discrimination action against Time Warner because it offers biological fathers two weeks of paid leave while allowing mothers and other primary caregivers up to 10. At the time of this writing, the EEOC is still investigating Mr. Levs' case.

Just as women struggle to balance their work and home lives, many men are navigating this same tricky territory. I suspect that lots of fathers are not exploring protections provided by anti-discrimination laws because they worry that anything other than trying to climb the workplace ladder will be perceived as unmanly.

Tom Spiggle is author of "You're Pregnant? You're Fired: Protecting Mothers, Fathers, and Other Caregivers in the Workplace" which will hit shelves later this spring. He is founder of the Spiggle Law Firm based in Arlington, Va., where he focuses on workplace law specializing in helping clients facing discrimination due to pregnancy or other family-care issues, such as caring for a sick child or elderly parent. This is Spiggle's first book. To learn more, visit: www.yourepregnantyourefired.com.