“Parental leave” is often understood to be synonymous with “maternity leave,” but that’s only half of the story. Indeed, data from Statistics Canada shows that in 2017, 90% of mothers took maternity leave, but only 12% of fathers took or intended to take paternity leave. However, attention is beginning to shift to paternity leaves and the role of fatherhood. Research on parenting, which has traditionally examined the effect of the mother on children’s outcomes, is now focusing on the importance of the father.  At the organizational and policy level, decision-makers have begun to implement paternity-leave policies to encourage fathers to share child-rearing responsibilities. For example, in 2015 Goldman Sachs doubled the length of their paternity leaves from two weeks to four weeks. In Canada, new federal parental leave policies created a “use it or lose it” five weeks of leave for the second parent in an effort to encourage fathers to take time off to spend with their infants.
To shed light on the implications of paternity leaves and fatherhood for policy and households, the Institute for Gender and the Economy held a panel discussion with leading scholars during its 3rd Annual Research Roundtable at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Professors Kate Bezanson (Brock University), Natasha Cabrera (University of Maryland), Shauna Cooper (UNC Chapel Hill), Nico Lacetera (University of Toronto, Institute for Management and Innovation), and Geoff Leonardelli (University of Toronto, Rotman School) debated the issues and highlighted the important intersections of gender, race, socioeconomic status and identity that shape parenting and paternity leave.
What are the benefits of paternity leave?
The arguments for supporting paternity leaves have frequently been linked to the benefits of fatherhood for children, fathers and households.
- Fathers play an important role in child development. Research in developmental psychology has documented the benefits of father-involvement for children; starting from before the child is even born and extending into their adulthood. For instance, research shows that fathers’ prenatal involvement (such as going to ultrasound appointments with the mother) is important for both the mother and child; and predicts later paternal engagement. Research also finds that increased engagement of fathers at an early age, predicts children’s linguistic development (because on average, fathers’ speech patterns differ from mothers).  In adolescence, an actively engaged father predicts increased academic achievement among adolescent girls and decreased risk behaviour among adolescent boys.
- Having a father has intergenerational effects. Research suggests that fatherhood may have benefits that extend beyond the immediate household. Research shows that men whose own fathers played an active role in their lives reported greater involvement with their own children.  Specifically, ongoing research shows that when men reported their own fathers being involved in their lives, they modelled those fatherhood behaviours (e.g., better manage work demands and parental involvement). Men whose fathers were absent from their lives stated that they had to learn about fatherhood from the media, television, and other indirect sources. This, in turn, affected their parenting self-efficacy–these men reported perceiving lower parenting abilities than men whose fathers had been involved in their lives and, as a result, were less likely to be involved in their own children’s lives.
Men whose fathers were absent from their lives stated that they had to learn about fatherhood from the media, television, and other indirect sources. This in turn affected their parenting self-efficacy.
What are the barriers to fathers taking paternity leaves?
Statistics show that even with parental leave policies in place, men do not take advantage of them. In Canada (outside of Quebec) only 12% of men take paternity leaves. In the United States, only about 10% of workers are employed at a workplace that provides paid leave specifically for having a child. Nonetheless, extant evidence suggests that most American fathers (89%) take some parental leave from work, but the leave is typically no more than one week—a fraction of the leave that fathers take in many other industrialized countries. For example, in Sweden, parents are currently entitled to 480 days paid parental leave, of which 90 days are exclusively reserved for fathers on a “use it or lose it” basis. As of 2013, 88% of Swedish fathers took paid paternity leave,accounting for a quarter of those who take paternity leave, and this number is on the rise.
This raises the question – if fathers involvement in childcare is so beneficial for households, why don’t more men take paternity leaves?
- Psychological barriers: fatherhood ideologies. Some men may feel inadequate as a father and withdraw from their parenting role as a result. The absence of one’s own father predicts this lowered fathering self-efficacy, and factors like social class also play an important role. For instance, fathers from lower socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds are more likely to link fatherhood to a provider role and thus, may focus solely on providing financial support for their children.  Fatherhood ideologies are also shaped by intersections with race. For example, in the US, African American fathers are aware of the negative stereotypes specifically associated with being an African American father, such as being absent fathers or “deadbeat” fathers. This can influence the likelihood that African American fathers take parental leave, as well as the way they interact with their children–something researchers call “fathering through a public lens.” [19-21] Research also shows that African American fathers who have yet to cope with their own experiences with racial discrimination feel less comfortable discussing these issues with their children, especially with boys.   As such, race, social class, and personal experiences influence the way fathers assess their own fathering abilities and ultimately how involved they are with their children.
- Psychological barriers: conceptions of masculinity. The way fathers think about masculinity can influence their parental involvement and the likelihood of taking parental leave. Traditional beliefs of masculinity often involve being the family “breadwinner,” as well as being strong, dominant, and always in control.  Taking a leave, like most care-taking roles that involve staying at home and “sacrificing” work for family, are stereotypically perceived as “feminine” and in direct conflict with beliefs about masculinity. Therefore, men may feel as if they are obligated to preserve their masculine identity, and as a result, forgo the option to take a leave.  
- Societal barriers: Race, class, and the privilege of parental leave. Not all fathers who want to take a leave have the privilege of doing so, yet the current leave system assumes they do. African American fathers, for example, are aware of societal stereotypes that others at work hold about race and fatherhood, so they may forgo parental leave in order to counteract these stereotypes and conform to “ideal worker” images.[19-21] Generally, low-income fathers face societal and economic barriers that fathers from middle or higher income brackets don’t. For example, they might need to prioritize financial contributions to the family over taking parental leave, and are more likely to face job loss if they take time out of the workforce.  As such, the image of an “ideal family,” which typically implies a straight, Caucasian, middle or upper class family, can lead to a biased and oversimplified picture of fatherhood and mask the privilege of access to paternity leaves.
- Policy barriers: lack of architecture. The design of leave policies also prevents some fathers from taking leave. Caregiving leaves do not exist within a silo, and there need to be systems of support in place to encourage uptake. For example, if the father is the higher earner in the family, his leave is potentially costlier for family finances., policies need to take into account incentives for men to take paternity leaves. Further, research shows that organizations do a poor job of integrating women back from maternity leave,  therefore men may be discouraged from taking leave for fear of hurting their careers. To counter this, decision-makers should consider options for re-entry into organizations, and childcare, when designing family policies.
- Policy barriers: reinforcing the privilege of paternity leave. The current policies in place also serve to reinforce the “privilege” of paternity leaves. For instance, income replacement rates for parental leaves are low, so only households that can afford a paternity leave can take it, and these households typically are middle and upper SES.   Research has shown that policies aimed at expanding uptake of parental and paternity leave increase the sharing of benefits across all income groups, but do so three times as much for middle and high-income families than for low-income families.
How can we remove some of these barriers to paternity leave?
Given these barriers, improving men’s access to and use of parental leave policies will require interventions at multiple levels.
- Removing psychological barriers: increasing fatherhood self-efficacy. One way to increase fathers’ confidence is to provide resources and room to improve. As an example, researchers have developed evidence-based parenting books for dads. These books allow fathers to recognize their unique role in parenting and provide training and resources to grow into that role. Encouraging fathers to find other men to talk to about fatherhood can also help new fathers make sense of their roles as fathers and increase involvement. Finally, mothers can also play a role by making space for fathers to try, fail, and learn about parenting, rather than succumbing to the urge to jump in and do the job themselves.
- Removing psychological barriers: opening up definitions of masculinity. Like other identities, definitions of masculinity must be broadened to include a wider array of traits, such as being nurturing, persistent, and non-judgmental. Indeed, the latest research suggests that standard views of masculinity are not held by everyone: some people do not necessarily see masculinity as antithetical to femininity or vice versa.  Studies have identified models for stay-at-home dads to navigate their masculine identities by incorporating their nurturing roles as domestic caregivers. As a whole, these findings suggest that there is space to redefine and negotiate masculinity in ways that support fatherhood.
- Removing societal and policy barriers: designing better leave policies. Effective policies will be designed to address the differential access to leaves for fathers from different social classes and racial groups. For example, a fixed rather than relative income replacement policy for paternity leaves could increase uptake and correct intergenerational wealth gaps. Further, policy-makers should be aware of the architecture required to support and sustain parental leave policies, such as having childcare options and paths to re-enter organizations after a leave. More importantly, policy design needs to create incentives for men to take leaves. For example, in 2006, Quebec put in place the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP), which has an income replacement of 70% for both maternity and paternity leaves. As a result, Quebec saw the highest rate of uptake for paternity leaves: 81.2% of fathers in Quebec take parental leave, compared to 12% of fathers in the rest of Canada. 
Policy-makers should be aware of the architecture required to support and sustain parental and paternity leave policies, such as having childcare options and paths to re-enter organizations after a leave.
- Removing societal and policy barriers: the role of organizations. Even if psychological and policy barriers to paternity leaves are removed, fathers may still choose not to take leaves if corporate policies or cultures are perceived to be unsupportive. For example, studies investigating company culture at a top consulting firm found that men felt pressured to maintain the ideal worker image of a workaholic. Even when there were options for flexible work practices, men took those opportunities stealthily, if at all.  These findings suggest that corporate cultures play a major role in how fathers think their decision to take paternity leave will impact their career.
Attention to paternity leave is important because it can affect many other policies and economic outcomes, including but not limited to economic outcomes for women and care workers, as well as workplaces and cultures. For example, research suggests that women in Canada provide 50% more unpaid labour at home than men. We also know that much of the gender wage gap is driven by women switching jobs after the birth of their first child so that they can accommodate the increased burden of household labour associated with childcare.  By involving men in parenting from the start, we can begin to balance household responsibilities, thus creating greater economic opportunities for women and greater parenting opportunities for men.
As our panel discussion suggests, paternity leaves are complicated. Across the board, there are benefits for the household when fathers are principal caregivers early in the child rearing process. However, the panellists highlighted several challenges and barriers that exist at the individual, societal, and policy levels that prevent fathers from taking paternity leave and reaping the benefits.
The consensus is that although there is no easy answer, the conversation around paternity leaves needs to continue. Bringing fatherhood to the forefront of the conversation about parental leave is the first step towards informing better policies and changing societal expectations around what it means to be a father.
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Research summary prepared by
Joyce He, Ph.D. Candidate, Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management, Rotman School of Management, U of T
January 30, 2019