Or: women will continue to be penalized in the workforce if social norms are that men take little to no time off to care for a new child.
Or: how the patriarchy fucks over fathers and mothers and decreases the health of all.
The typical white collar new father takes less than one week off when his wife gives birth. This, frankly, pisses me off. Meanwhile their wives who just went thru a possibly grueling forty weeks of pregnancy and a possibly even more grueling birth process, likely need to stay home for a while to recover (doctors recommend at least six weeks). If she’s lucky, she has support at home full time for that recovery time, but far too many don’t. Whenever I consider what it would be like taking care of my daughter by myself for the first couple weeks postpartum, I am terrified that I would have screwed it up out of exhaustion and emotional instability. Then women are asked to establish a good breast feeding relationship (more on this in another post) and they are told how important it is to create a good bond with their child and how many benefits there are to a parent staying home with an infant. Is it any wonder that women may choose to stay home?
There’s a good reason why women tend to stay home: historically, women didn’t work outside the home. If she did, she wasn’t expected to work soon after having a child or ever again. She also probably wasn’t earning an important (or majority) share of the household income. But we have careers now — I sure like having one! — and lives that are not defined by our ability to reproduce. But with this comes a conflict. Women have good medical reasons to stay home at last for the very early weeks. There are health and other benefits to a parent staying home longer . If someone can stay home, it’s often just going to be easier if it’s the woman. But if women are staying home for extended periods to care for infants, then she just interrupted her career. Her male colleagues did not (typically) interrupt their careers to take care of a new child. Nor were her male colleagues likely encouraged to take time off or praised if they did.
Women currently take more time off to care for children or family than men do. If a company offers paid family leave at all, they offer it for women far more often than men. Women are already perceived to be focused more on their families so it’s expected she’ll take time off to take care of sick children (and managers of both sexes perceive mothers as less committed than fathers). Men, on the other hand, feel they will be penalized if they do.
Funny that. Women are being penalized in the workplace for taking time to care for a family, starting from birth. In industries that already have problems finding and retaining women, a culture where men don’t take time off proportionally to care for family as their women coworkers will result in women not advancing. Not because men are better or women just aren’t interested, but simply because men don’t typically take a few months off at some critical period when a new project starts that gets those on it promoted. If taking time off for family isn’t a routine thing that everyone does, then those who are aren’t able to take off a mere handful of days for a new child will always face greater challenges (that have nothing to do with their abilities or potential in the workforce). Right now that’s mostly women.
To bring this around to my industry, tech, we talk about all the reasons there aren’t more women. There’s the “pipeline” problem — that is, few women studying computer science. There are questions of sexism and implicit bias in hiring and promotion. But I think parental leave is almost certainly also an issue. Fortunately some tech companies, like Facebook, are trying to change that. At Facebook, men and women workers have the same parental leave benefits. I don’t know how it works out in practice — perhaps women still end up taking more time off than their male coworkers. But at least Facebook is trying. Other companies, like Google, found that extended family leave greatly improved retention of women — recruiting and hiring at large tech companies is incredibly expensive so improved retention can save a lot of money. Gender-neutral family leave policies probably won’t magically create some utopia where men and women are exactly equal — evidence from Europe suggests there are big trade-offs in practice. I do expect it to give more women real options to stay working without having to compromise their careers or families.