Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Parental Leave

note: Discussion of heterosexual, two-parent, biological family structures is not meant to imply that there aren't other valid and prevalent ways of raising children, because there are. I'm just focusing on mother-and-father families for the moment, as the plurality case. Single-parent families, and adoptive families, especially ones with two fathers, are a whole different matter.


Today (a few days ago) from the NYT's Upshot column: When Family-Friendly Policies Backfire.

In Chile, a law requires employers to provide working mothers with child care. One result? Women are paid less.

In Spain, a policy to give parents of young children the right to work part-time has led to a decline in full-time, stable jobs available to all women -- even those who are not mothers.

Elsewhere in Europe, generous maternity leaves have meant that women are much less likely than men to become managers or achieve other high-powered positions at work.

Family-friendly policies can help parents balance jobs and responsibilities at home, and go a long way toward making it possible for women with children to remain in the work force. But these policies often have unintended consequences.

They can end up discouraging employers from hiring women in the first place, because they fear women will leave for long periods or use expensive benefits. "For employers, it becomes much easier to justify discrimination," said Sarah Jane Glynn, director of women's economic policy at the Center for American Progress.

It goes on to rattle off some supporting statistics: In the wake of strong maternity-leave protections, women are more likely to remain employed after having a child, but less likely to be hired or promoted (even if not planning on having children). The obvious mechanism of "people don't want to { hire / promote } people who are going to { go on parenting leave / quit } is blamed.


I have some issues with this article.

In the part of the article where it's supposed to conclude and suggest solutions, the author writes: "There is no simple way to prevent family-friendly policies from backfiring, researchers say." Except that of course they're going to go on and propose some anyway, okay fine. Among the suggestions are to put it on the taxpayer's bill, "make sure policies are generous but not too generous", and -- only as the third suggestion in the concluding three sentences -- "make [parental leave policies] gender-neutral".

I mean, come on. This is really not a difficult concept, and it seems like you should try it first, before getting lost in things like (1) try to wrestle more government funding from the elective-austerity folks or (2) cut back leave policies to the point where employers won't notice them. Might that look like...the state of affairs we have now?

Anyway, strengthening paternity leave has a dual benefit in increasing the amount of leave that families enjoy -- first, via the first-order effect of letting men take more leave, and second, by making it easier to lobby for increased maternity leave without fueling further employment-related backlash against (potentially) childbearing female employees. And the knock-on effects for their partner's employment -- decreasing the amount of leave she'll have to take, and decreasing the what-if-she-takes-maternity-leave 'risk' in hiring and promotion considerations -- are potentially significant as well.

And the data on whether or not men do take leave when available are promising, too: a 2014 survey-response study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family reported that 40% of men take two weeks of leave; 24% take one. Only 6% take three or more. Nevertheless,

Those with two weeks of paternity leave available tended to take off two weeks (64% took off two weeks). Those with four weeks available tended to take off four weeks (41%), and those with six weeks available tended to take off six weeks (45%). This data strongly supports the idea that fathers will take advantage of the policies made available to them. (...)

This is good! It means that for the most part, men take two or fewer weeks of leave because they're usually offered two or less. Of course, as perhaps expected,

[N]ote that those with four
weeks and those with six weeks of paid leave both had a common second tendency to take two weeks off -- 29% and 28% respectively. Perhaps their work demands were such that taking more time off was not feasible, they felt that two weeks were sufficient, or they felt that two weeks was the most appropriate amount of time to take in their corporate culture. (...)

So that's not great. Here's the full chart from the CWF: (note that employees can take more weeks off than they are formally allowed by using vacation benefits, sick days, or applying for unpaid leave)

Source: Boston College Center for Work and Family
No Paid Paternity Leave1 Week of Paid Paternity Leave2 Weeks of Paid Paternity Leave4 Weeks of Paid Paternity Leave6 Weeks of Paid Paternity Leave
No time off11%1%4%0%2%
Took <1 week21%12%5%6%0%
Took 1 week34%49%13%6%2%
2 weeks23%26%64%29%28%
3 weeks3%7%7%6%8%
4 weeks2%1%3%41%8%
5 weeks0%0%1%6%3%
6 weeks1%0%2%0%45%
Took >6 weeks4%4%1%6%7%

Sure there are all sorts of anecdotes of male employees feeling pressured to take less leave than they're able, but the plural of anecdote is not data, and it's good to keep in mind that, even so, a majority of men do use all -- or more than -- the paid leave to which they are entitled.


The large majority (86%) of respondents said they would not make use of paternity leave or parental leave unless at least 70% of their salaries were paid, and 45% said compensation needed to be at 100%. Those who do not currently have paid paternity or parental leave available responded very similarly on this question to those who do.

These findings may be a reflection of the fathers’ current circumstances: In our sample, 85% of the fathers were paid for all of their time off, either through vacation pay, paid paternity/parental leave, or use of holidays or personal days. Slightly less than 6% were paid for some of the time off and just under 10% were not paid for any of the duration of the leave. (...)

Also, CWF's sample may not be representative; I dunno. There are numbers running around various news articles to the effect of, only 14% of companies offer paternity leave, but more than 14% of fathers work at companies that offer leave, which may speak to either a selection effect, or a positive correlation between size and extent of leave policy. In any case, generous paternity leave seems to be one of those things that hip, young, huge tech companies are doing nowadays, reports WaPo:

Yahoo now offers eight weeks of paid paternity leave to new dads, while Facebook offers new fathers an eye-popping four months. (...)

Anecdote: Jeff Kaufman, an engineer at Google, took two weeks after the birth of his daughter, and another two months about six months after that. This is actually the norm in Iceland, for example:

In Iceland fathers are granted the longest nontransferable right to family leave in the world. By 2009, 96% of fathers in Iceland took leave, for an average of 99 days. Fathers take one-third of all family leave days taken by parents, also the highest in the world.

The most common pattern of leave-taking is for the parents to be home together the first month after childbirth, and then mothers are home alone for two additional months before they return to work. At that point, fathers tend to take their remaining two months of leave, although they are more likely than mothers to take leave in more than one block. (...)


So parental leave is kinda complicated, but also kinda not. On the one hand, maternity leave protections make it easier for women to take leave without losing their jobs, but their introduction has coincided with a rise in discrimination against women in hiring and promotion. If you ask me, the obvious solution is:

  • Companies offer paternity leave as well (and prospective employees make it clear that this is an important issue), and
  • Fathers actually take their leave, and are public and non-apologetic about it, and
  • Managers and co-workers are supportive of new fathers who take leave.

But in any case, "Family-Friendly Policies Backfire" is a bit of a misleading headline. At the least, it's premature, since we haven't really seen the mass roll-out of truly family-friendly leave policies yet.

To their credit, the NYT concludes on an appropriate quote:

"It has to become something that humans do," Ms. Glynn, from the Center for American Progress, said, "as opposed to something that women do."

See also, regarding the years after the neonatal period: Mounting Evidence of Advantages for Children of Working Mothers

[E]vidence is mounting that having a working mother has some economic, educational and social benefits for children of both sexes. That is not to say that children do not also benefit when their parents spend more time with them -- they do. But we make trade-offs in how we spend our time, and research shows that children of working parents also accrue benefits. (...)