Workplace equality and paternal leave

+ The widespread adoption of paternal leave will lead to a more gender-balanced work culture, taking us closer to genuine workplace equality.

The amount of paid parental leave varies greatly, but across the world there’s a growing consensus that neither parent should suffer discriminatory working arrangements as a result of having a child. But I want to argue that until men feel comfortable taking the decision to fully embrace the opportunities and benefits of truly shared parental leave, we won’t really achieve equality in the workplace.

Traditionally, the perception has always been that women faced ‘the motherhood penalty’, a well-documented loss of earnings and negative effects on career development. Shared parental leave legislation is partly aimed at addressing this, by equitably sharing the work of being a parent it also aims to equalise the status of both parents in the workplace context. 

Research shows that when new fathers are given time to develop parenting skills they become equally as good at them as women. Giving men time to become fathers also makes them better employees, providing a buffer against work-related stresses

But even for professional fathers-to-be in countries where paternal leave is state-funded, there remains a realistic fear about loss of earnings. And when large employers do offer full-salary paternal leave, an embedded cultural fear of the motherhood penalty seems to be a barrier that stops fathers from taking advantage of this opportunity.

There are a variety of psychological hurdles to overcome, ranging from status anxiety, to loss of earnings, embarrassment and the fear that colleagues or competitors will usurp their position if they’re away for an extended period. To counter these fears, governments in Germany, Canada and across Scandinavia have offered further incentives, offering additional weeks of paid leave to fathers if the initial non-transferable block of time is taken.

Leading from the middle

Generational change needs to take place, but in the political structure of big organisations this change will need to be led by those in middle management, with vocal support and encouragement from those in positions of leadership and influence. Only then will shared parental leave become the new normal. I myself took three and a half months off when I became a father, as I strongly felt this was the right thing to do for my family, and I hope it will inspire others to do the same.

Creating the new normal

Legislation will only ever be part of the answer, there’s still much work to be done to get men comfortable with stepping up and owning their fathering role. 

Change is beginning to happen. Arup in the UK has introduced three months paid leave for fathers as part of shared parental leave and companies such as Virgin offer even longer periods of paid leave for some employees. But truly exemplar organisations like Facebook, which actively supports and encourages a culture of parental (rather than ‘maternal’ or ‘paternal’) leave, are still all too rare. 

But this is a social idea whose time has come. It’s my belief that the widespread adoption of paternal leave will lead to a more gender-balanced work culture, taking us closer to genuine workplace equality and the other well-documented benefits that brings.