Stereotypes, Stigmas, and Parental Leave

In his November 13, 2014 post “On Parenting and Careers,” my colleague, Matt Schmid, wrote about his recent decision to take three weeks of paternity leave.  Matt noted that even though we work at a firm that frequently represents women who have been discriminated and retaliated against on the basis of their care-giving responsibilities, he still worried that taking more than three weeks would “look too much like a prioritization of family over career.”  Matt explained that the same assumptions that force women into caregiver roles also discourage men from being more involved in raising their children.

Although Matt regrets not taking more parental leave, his decision to take three weeks places him in the top five percent of fathers who could take parental leave.  As detailed in a recent study by the Center for Work and Family at Boston College that surveyed fathers who work in white-collar jobs, only five percent of fathers take three weeks or more parental leave—three-fourths take one week off or less.

Matt’s decision to take three weeks of parental leave is commendable in light of the very real stigma surrounding men who take on caregiver responsibilities.  In an article published last year in the Journal of Social Studies, researchers from the University of Oregon demonstrated that when men reduce their work hours for family reasons, they suffer a reduction in earnings of 15.5 percent over the course of their careers.  In comparison, women who do the same suffer an average drop of 9.8 percent.  Importantly, men who worked reduced hours for non-family related reasons suffered an average drop of 11.2 percent.  In light of these unfortunate realities, it not surprising that Matt’s concern over the effect on his career of taking leave available to him is common among men in today’s work place.

As demonstrated by the Boston College study, only 16% of American men in white-collar jobs agree that most of their interests center on work.  The study also showed that job security and the availability of flexible work arrangements are more important to men than good advancement opportunities and high income.  Moreover, the overwhelming majority of men feel equally responsible for being caregivers as financial providers for their children.  Nonetheless, only 30% of fathers provide at least as much care for their children as their spouse or partner, and the men surveyed indicated that participating in “day-to-day childcare tasks” is of relatively little importance.

Eliminating the outdated notions about gender roles that create this disjunction will require policies that empower both men and women to pursue their career objectives while maintaining a full home life.  Flexible work arrangements and paid paternity leave are common sense and long over-due steps in the right direction.  Still, even in workplaces that enact such policies, addressing the stigma that attends paternity leave and stereotypes that prejudice working mothers will take many years of continued advocacy and leadership by those of us who believe that men and women should be free to choose the work-life structure that best fits their lives. In the time between now and whenever these stubborn misconceptions finally recede, we’re all going to have to find paths to accomplish both our career and personal goals in work places where these stigmas and stereotypes persist.  Undoubtedly some of the parents who take full parental leave will suffer career setbacks due to the stigma and stereotypes that Matt identifies in his post.   Parents like Matt who take parental leave despite the existence of prejudices surrounding the same are important role models.  They demonstrate to the rest of us that even where there may be a stigma or stereotype that discourages taking on additional caregiver responsibilities, taking on those responsibilities is still the right decision for many parents.

Aubrey Smith

Aubrey Smith is a lawyer. He is also an awesome dude.

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