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During a month of celebrating women, a plea for paternity leave

By Kaylene Alvarez, Founder and CEO of Athena Global

We now understand that paternity leave has many positive impacts on individuals, families and society. For example, we know paternity leave promotes stronger bonds between father and child, at a time when forming these bonds is critical for the emotional development of the child. We know it teaches fathers to be better parents—because parenting is actually a set of skills you need to learn and not some innate talent you’re born with, and paternity leave helps fathers learn these skills. Importantly, men who use paternity leave tend to take on more of the actual time-consuming (and energy-sapping and occasionally mind-numbing) work of parenting. This gives mothers more time and energy to pursue other activities, like starting businesses, or enjoying hobbies. Or napping. So paternity leave not only helps create better fathers, healthier children and stronger societies, it does all this while promoting gender equality.

Despite all these positives, the idea of paid paternity leave is not widely accepted around the world, and in the US seems almost out of reach. Even unpaid leave can be difficult to access here, for both new mothers and fathers. (Roughly half of American workers fail to qualify for federally mandated unpaid leave because their employers are too small or they don’t work enough hours.) Many, if not most men take a short period of time off when they become fathers, but it’s rarely paid and if it is it’s often because they use vacation or sick time instead, an undeniable indication that paternity leave occupies a lowly position on our list of priorities. Furthermore, the lowest-paid employees will be the least able to take any time off, meaning that the lack of paternity leave is making class inequality worse, too.

And of course it’s not just a question of policies or finances keeping men at work. Old-fashioned cultural expectations push men to stay on the job while mothers are expected to stay home sacrificing their career goals to raise babies. Outdated machismo is still a powerful force pushing men around the world to act against their own interests and reject paternity leave even when it’s available to them.

Lack of paternity leave fuels gender inequality, class inequality and societal decay. Rather than wait for governments to bring the benefits of paternity leave to society, private sector decision-makers should take a long look at what paternity leave can do for them. Good employers should want their male employees to take time to bond with their kids and be good parents, not only because good parenting leads to good human beings, but because of the benefits to the company itself. We get better performance and have healthier companies if we build environments that allow flexibility for our workers to live their full lives that include both WORK and FAMILY (and everything else).

Employees are not extractive resources to be mined until the pit is dry. They are human beings with complex lives beyond work. As employers, we need to accept the reality that priorities change for our employees, especially when there’s a baby on the way. We need to stop forcing people to choose to be either parents or good employees, because they’re not mutually exclusive. Not only should childcare leave be available, but EVERYONE should qualify for it, including men, women and those that identify as neither or other, and also those that have children through IVF, adoption, foster or other. And what about secondary caregivers? Certainly anyone who is performing unpaid childcare work deserves to be part of this conversation.

All of this leads to one of my larger rants…women being unfairly punished for having gaps in their CVs due to maternity leave. These gaps perpetuate inequitable pay, inequitable promotion cycles, and false perceptions about women’s skill levels and priorities. If we create work environments where it is acceptable and encouraged for everyone to raise children—and take time away from the office to do so—then the issue of women having gaps on their CVs becomes moot. Because both men and women will have the same gaps. 

The issue of equitable paternity leave reinforces the notion that gender equity isn’t just about women. It’s about men, too, and those who identify as someone else (or nothing), entirely. The very notion of maternity or paternity leave is outdated; it should simply be childcaring leave—and everyone should receive equal treatment, regardless of gender, age or genetic relationship to the child.

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