Paternity leave: The hidden barriers keeping men at work

By Josie Cox

Paternity leave, which comes with multiple benefits, is more widely offered than ever before. So, why aren't more men taking it?

In summer 2018, Ricardo Duque was about to begin five months of paternity leave from the architecture firm where he worked in London. But, then, his grandmother in southern Portugal contracted a severe case of pneumonia.  

Duque’s wife, who is Indian, had just resumed working at Samsung, after seven months of maternity leave. “I’d barely spent any time alone with our daughter,” the 42-year-old recalls. “But I had no choice. I took her to Portugal, and spent the next few weeks looking after my tiny baby and my grandma, with very little help from anyone else.”  

From the moment Duque and his wife discovered they were expecting, he knew that he wanted to take a substantial amount of paternity leave, which his partner endorsed. Despite worrying that he was getting “looks” from colleagues and being “judged by managers” when he informed them of his plan – and even though his leave did not start exactly as envisioned –  the experience turned out to be extremely rewarding. 

“The time we spent together was invaluable and I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he says. “We now have such a special bond.” 

Across the UK, US and many other parts of the world, however, non-birthing parents like Duque who take parental leave are a depressingly small minority. The number of countries where paternity leave is enshrined in law has more than doubled to about 90 in the last 20 years; and globally, at least four out of every 10 organisations are thought to provide paid leave above the statutory minimum. Yet, the proportion of men who take more than a few days off work when their child is born is tiny. 

Most cite fears of being discriminated against professionally, missing out on pay rises and promotions, being marginalised or even mocked as reasons for not taking time off. Academics consider these concerns to be the effect of deeply ingrained and highly damaging stereotypes around gender – and suggest that changing this will require significant cultural shifts as well as better institutional provision of paid paternity leave.  

Internalised stereotypes 

Thekla Morgenroth, a research fellow in Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter, UK, says that gender stereotypes have persisted, even though gender roles at work have changed substantially in the last few decades, with much higher numbers of women entering and staying in the workforce. 

“Women are no longer seen as less competent than men, but women continue to be seen as more communal – warm, nurturing and caring – than men and, in turn, as more suitable for roles that require these attributes such as childcare,” they explain. “Men, on the other hand, continue to be seen as more agentic: decisive, assertive, competitive.”

This, says Morgenroth, can affect decisions regarding parental leave in a multitude of ways. “First, women and men can internalise these stereotypes, meaning that men might think that they are not very communal and thus wouldn't be very good at taking care of a baby. Their female partners may of course also endorse gender stereotypes and discourage their male partners from taking parental leave because they don't think they're capable.” 

A key factor is that gender stereotypes are not only descriptive but also prescriptive; they signal what women and men shouldbe like – including the idea that men should prioritise work over family. 

“Men who do take parental leave can therefore face backlash and be seen as weak, lacking work commitment and so on, which can result in consequences at work such as being demoted or not taken seriously,” they say. “Men are, of course, aware of these potential consequences and this could definitely contribute to them deciding against taking parental leave even if it's offered.” 

No role models 

Communication is a prime factor that Sarah Forbes, lecturer and academic researcher at Birmingham University Business School, UK, identifies as another invisible barrier to men taking the leave that they are entitled to.  

In 2015, the UK introduced a shared parental leave policy allowing eligible parents to split up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay between them. But research in 2018 showed that of the more than 900,000 UK parents who were eligible to take advantage of the policy that year, only 9,200 parents – or about 1% – did

Gender stereotypes and workplaces pressures can all deter men from taking time off – but there are multiple benefits when they do (Credit: Getty Images)

Gender stereotypes and workplaces pressures can all deter men from taking time off – but there are multiple benefits when they do (Credit: Getty Images)

Ricardo Duque says that this might be partly a result of fathers simply not knowing their rights. “When I took paternity leave, I was shocked at how few other dads knew what they were entitled to,” he says. 

Forbes believes it’s important to have visible “fatherhood champions” at companies, across different sections and departments both to inspire fathers to take leave and also improve their knowledge of leave provisions. “Also, if managers are knowledgeable of the organisation’s offering around paternity leave and shared parental leave, this will lead to parents being more aware of what their entitlements are.” 

Thekla Morgenroth also considers role models to be of paramount importance. “If other men are taking parental leave at a specific company, it shows that taking parental leave is normal and acceptable for men to do,” they explain. “These effects are likely particularly pronounced when men in leadership positions take parental leave, because they can act as role models and demonstrate that you can be successful even if you take parental leave.” 

Unfortunately, however, there’s evidence that it’s precisely these men, the ones at the highest echelons who are most visible, who tend to take the least leave. Research conducted across Germany, Austria and Switzerland in 2017 showed that fathers without leadership responsibility were much more likely to take leave as planned than their peers who were managers. More responsibility, the researchers reasoned, simply equated to greater perceived pressure to be present at work. 

“That needs to change,” says Morgenroth. “It's of course great if companies offer extensive paid parental leave for fathers, and they absolutely should, but as long as leaders don't demonstrate that men won't be penalised for making use of such policies, not much will change.” 

Unspoken norms 

Workplace experts are warning that the immense uncertainty created by the Covid-19 pandemic – and specifically anxiety around job security – is only likely to have exacerbated workers’ concerns about taking time off.  

In one survey of over 500 US fathers conducted at the end of May, about two-thirds of respondents admitted that there was an unspoken rule that men at their jobs should not take full paternity leave – and that taking as little as possible was “a badge of honour”. 

Ninety percent of those surveyed reported their employer offered less than 12 weeks of paternity leave, but almost two-thirds said that they planned to take less than half of that. Fifty-eight percent admitted that they were afraid that taking even six weeks of paternity leave would set their careers back.

Dads who take time off go on to have closer relationships with their kids, research shows (Credit: Getty)

Dads who take time off go on to have closer relationships with their kids, research shows (Credit: Getty)

In the US, although individual companies offer paternity leave, fathers are not legally entitled to any paid parental leave. In fact, the US is one of only a handful of countries without any mandated paid leave for birthing mothers, too. President Joe Biden has included expanded provision in his American Families Plan, but it’s not at all clear whether the legislation will pass. 

In recent months, caring responsibilities have caused millions of women to leave jobs; the US women’s labour force participation rate, for example, slumped to its lowest level since 1988. Gender norms seem to have become even more entrenched by the pandemic – something which, combined with ongoing economic instability, could potentially make it even harder for fathers who want time off. 

Unappreciated upsides  

Many academics say what’s particularly frustrating about the low take-up of paternity leave, whether in the US or elsewhere, is the potential that it has to reduce the gender pay gap. “Gender inequality will continue in the workplace for as long as early-years parenting is primarily seen as women’s work,” says Emma Banister, professor at the University of Manchester’s Work and Equalities Institute. “The current policy framework doesn’t do enough to challenge this.” 

Research has highlighted other important advantages of fathers taking leave, too. A paper published in 2019 showed that even nine years later, children whose fathers took at least two weeks of paternity leave after they were born reported feeling closer to their fathers than children with fathers who did not take leave. In a separate paper, academics found that for heterosexual married couples, the father taking any paternity leave after the birth of a child can also cause the divorce risk to drop for up to six years after the birth

Some countries have made strides when it comes to men taking more parental leave. Sweden offers parents 480 days of paid parental leave per child that they are entitled to share. Each parent can transfer part of their leave to the other, but 90 days have to be reserved specifically for each parent. From 2008 until 2017, as an incentive for fathers to take more time off, families were entitled to a monetary bonus determined by the number of days divided equally between parents. 

The policy seems to be working: One study in 2019 showed that approximately 90% of eligible Swedish fathers claim paternity leave and that on average, they take 96% of the total amount of leave time allotted to them. Sweden is also a leader among advanced economies in terms of female labour market participation

Supporting a more equal society 

In the absence of this kind of comprehensive legislation, however, Banister believes that employers should reduce barriers to taking paternity leave by “normalising employees taking leave during the first year of their child’s birth or adoption, regardless of the employees’ gender or sexual orientation”. 

There are more specific considerations too, she says, like the timing of the leave. Company-subsidised parental leave, if offered, is often restricted to the first few months – when it may suit parents better for the mother to be at home, especially if she is breastfeeding. If employers gave all parents decent pay for a period of time, regardless of when they take it (and in addition to a period of fully-paid paternity leave around the time of the birth), this would give parents much more flexibility. 

But ideally, says Banister, leave for fathers and financial support for that leave should be the state’s responsibility, because putting the onus on employers – as is the case in the US – can lead to a “two-tier system” where only certain sectors offer paternity leave. 

Ultimately, it seems, removing the barriers that deter fathers from taking time off begins with adequate provision, well-communicated, which can then start to reduce gender stereotypes and mainstream the practice. 

“The government should offer an appropriate minimum package which encourages behaviours that support a more gender equal society,” says Banister.