‘Serious ramifications’: Why unshakeable gender stereotypes prevent men from taking paternity leave

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Father of four Jeremy Swift believes he has his priorities balanced. First, to be a better husband, second, to be a better father and third, to be a better leader at the digital marketing platform, Cordial, where he is co-founder and CEO. But things weren’t always so clear.

When each of his four children was born, he took just one to two weeks of paternity leave, feeling pressure to get back to work quickly, especially after the birth of his fourth, which coincided with him raising capital for Cordial.

Being overloaded at work meant Swift had little capacity to be present with his family. But his wife Audi intervened. Swift sought regular therapy sessions that helped him disconnect from work and connect more with his family.

That personal experience inspired Swift to increase Cordial’s paternity policy to offer four weeks fully paid, and he advocates all new fathers in the business take it. That’s then supplemented by a further 12 weeks unpaid. But he believes offering it is just the start.

“It’s about establishing a more common workplace culture that families should come first,” he said. “In a performance-driven culture, we will revert back to the behaviors that are modeled to us by company leaders and that we believe will help us get ahead.”

Two weeks of paternity leave has long been the average amount offered, but that’s changed a lot over the last few years as an increasing number of companies now offer four weeks or more and other shared parental-leave policies. Volvo Cars and U.K. retailer John Lewis are the latest to announce six months’ paid leave for all new parents.

But Swift’s decision to take the minimal amount of paternity leave is all too common. Recent data from Harris Poll and Volvo Car USA revealed that 62% of the 501 working U.S. fathers surveyed believe there is an unspoken rule that men shouldn’t take full paternity leave, while 59% said that no one at their company takes their full leave. And 67% believe it is a “badge of honor” to return as quickly as possible. A range of stigmas shaped by prevailing gender stereotypes is influencing this, according to the research.

Although these men have the option at their company to take more than two weeks, 58% worry that taking six weeks of paternity leave will set their career back, causing 55% to fear losing their job by taking full paternity leave, per the same report. 

Such career concerns ring true for nine men Digiday spoke to for this article across a range of industries including social media, entertainment, finance, advertising and career coaching. Cvlture TV presenter and grime music artist, Nik Nagarkar, said paternity leave is a “luxury” he felt unable to experience when his daughter was born in 2018.

“Being a business owner and artist in the media and music sectors, it wouldn’t be viable on any level for me to be out of the business for any extended period of time without it having serious ramifications,” he said.

Tom Pepper, head of marketing solutions at LinkedIn UK, Ireland and Israel, recalls finding it difficult to strike the right work/life balance with his first child after taking the two weeks on offer at the time. When his second child was born, he was one of the first fathers at LinkedIn to take six weeks paternity leave, after the policy was expanded in 2017.

“I was nervous about the perception of me taking advantage of the benefit and stepping away from work for a large chunk of time. I was also apprehensive about leaving a role in a fast-paced environment where key decisions would be made while I was away,” he said.

Yet these are the same issues women face when having children. This suggests prevailing double standards tied to seemingly unshakeable gender stereotypes around caregiving and breadwinning, warned Ben Richmond, U.S. country manager at accounting software company Xero. Xero offers 26 weeks paid leave for primary carers and six weeks for secondary. Leave is called “parental” or “partners”, rather than “maternity” or “paternity.”

“In the past, women were just expected to take time off to raise children. Many times this was detrimental to their careers because when they returned, they were up against men who took no time off,” said Richmond.

“If we start to take a non-gender approach to parental leave, we can level the playing field for women and move past the stigma that can be associated with taking time off to care for children. It’s time for us to readjust how we think about parenting roles and taking leave,” he added.

The issue is even more important for Richmond, who, with his husband, plans to have a child through surrogacy and plans to use part of his parental leave with his husband when the baby is born. “I’ll then go back to work while he stays home, then swap so he can return to work and I can spend time with the baby,” he said.

Such a readjustment also comes down to companies doing more to support fathers returning from parental leave, as they often do for mothers. “There’s a disparity when it comes to a graduated return to work for new dads versus new moms. Companies must see it through beyond the return to work,” said Matthew Weiner, senior vp and creative director at ad agency Arc Worldwide.

Indeed this is something that independent paternity coach Ian Dinwhiddy feels is lacking, calling out parental programs for leaving fathers out.

“Without [a] doubt, moms and dads can learn from each other’s experiences. But creating and delivering programs that focus on men and women separately, yet holistically, is key to creating benefits for everyone,” he added

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