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Paternity Leave: Why it Matters for Families & Businesses

A man enjoying paternity leave

Last month’s article on the “office mom” – in honour of Mother’s Day – examined stereotypes of women in the workplace and how characteristics typically associated with femininity, such as compassion and affection, may be a welcome instillation into today’s world of work, especially with regard to leadership styles. So, in honour of Father’s Day this month, we’re taking a close look at the upheavals and discoveries that are forcing us to rethink what it means to be a man and a father – and how employers should respond to these new perspectives, particularly when it comes to paternity leave.

The Great “He-cession” and the shifting definition of masculinity

About 71% of those who lost their jobs during the onset of the Great Recession in Canada were men. In the US, the number was 80%. Add to those statistics the fact that women currently make up more than 50% of both the Canadian and American workforces – which has never before been the case – and many will argue that men are facing one heck of an identity crisis, particularly since some of the hardest hit sectors, such as manufacturing and resources, are traditionally male-dominated.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, being the breadwinner of a family was part and parcel of what it meant to be a man. The very recent and very sudden changes to that longstanding way of life have resulted, many experts say, in a collective shock to men’s sense of self-worth in North America.

A popular uprising in popular culture

Many claim the that the so-called “He-cession” constitutes a double whammy for modern men, pointing to an attitudinal shift in pop culture in the 1990s that spawned portrayals of the North American male – and the modern father – as a clueless buffoon whose incessant inadequacies are time and again forgiven by a more competent, more powerful woman. The Simpsons and Everybody Loves Raymond are popular examples of this portrayal as is the rise of “metrosexuality”.

To be fair, these examples contradict other contemporary pop-cultural phenomena that seem to promote equality between the genders. Fight Club, for instance, (both novel and film) articulated the pervasive frustration associated with a perceived decline in “real” men by indicting consumerism and calling Generation X males “a generation of men raised by women”: a line that in fact incriminates the emotional (and physical) distance of Baby Boomer fathers more than it says anything about Baby Boomer mothers. However, while it laments the loss of certain aspects of masculinity, it ends – SPOILER ALERT – by suggesting that unbridled testosterone-driven rebellion is not the answer. Then there are more recent examples, such as the hugely popular television shows Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, both of which portray a mix of strong men and women, all of whom can be good, bad, or somewhere in between.

Rediscovering the “modern” father

The fact is that the egalitarian characters mentioned above parallel what’s found in most hunter-gatherer societies (the kind of societies our entire species lived in before someone managed to invent agriculture) where men and women are equally respected and influential. With that said, it isn’t “natural” for men to have more power than women – or vice-versa, for that matter. That’s why some say that if there’s anything positive about the He-cession, it’s that men and women are rediscovering this egalitarianism and the advantages it presents to both men and their children. By staying at home – whether due to being laid off or because his partner has a higher income – the modern father does more housework and spends more time with his children, none of which, as it turns out, is antithetical to the definition of masculinity, especially when you consider the research.

Contrary to the belief that men have to actively suppress some sort of genetic programming or hormonal poisoning that would otherwise have them continually cheating on their mates and showing little interest in their offspring, quite the opposite is true. A recent study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University shows that the more involved fathers are with their children, the less those fathers suffer from depression and substance abuse, and the better it is for their children’s social development and academic endeavors. These results should really come as no surprise, especially given the so-called “sympathy pregnancies” men endure when their partners are pregnant. Just as testosterone is responsible for male vigor and virility, other hormones, including the female hormone, estrogen, come into play when a man is about to become a father. These findings show that the popular definition of masculinity requires expanding and an attitudinal adjustment to go with it – especially when it comes to today’s workplace and paternity leave.

How paternity leave benefits family and work

Now that society has started to unearth the long-buried layers of what it means to be both a man and a father, it’s time to take a look at how exactly the modern father fits into today’s workplace. Given what we know about the advantages for children when their fathers spend more time with them and the hormonal changes men go through when they’re expecting a child, the benefits of paternity leave are undeniable and something every modern father should be encouraged to take advantage of not only for his child, but also for his own sense of fulfillment and to maintain a healthy relationship with his partner.

Research shows that fewer divorces occur among parents where the father takes paternity leave, pointing yet again to the idea that there’s much more to being a man than simply bringing home the bacon. In essence, paternity leave can significantly contribute to a long-lasting, happy family life – and happy family lives mean happy, more productive employees. But what can employers do to make it easier for young fathers to take the time they need? For one, employers can begin with recognizing what all the research is showing: that the perception of what it means to be a modern man and a modern father is not only changing, but falling more in line with the natural truth.

The modern father vs. the modern employer

In all of Canada, excluding Quebec, men and women can share 25 weeks of paid “parental” leave at 55% of their incomes up to a maximum of $501 a week each. However, the woman gets 10 “sickness” and 15 “maternity” weeks on top of that. Obviously, many couples may not feel comfortable earning just 55% of their income for nearly half a year. (In Quebec, fathers and mothers share 32 weeks and, and fathers get five weeks of paternity leave at 70% of their income.) That’s why, sometimes, if the mother makes more money, she may forego those 25 weeks of parental leave in favour of the father staying at home. But often, usually with the idea that it’s healthier for a child to bond with his or her mother, it’s the men who sacrifice the time they spend with their children.

Dissatisfaction with current paternity leave policies in North America are coming to light more and more. For example, a 2011 Boston College study concluded that many expecting fathers feel their employers don’t appreciate their situation the way they appreciate the situations of expecting mothers. That’s got a lot to do with traditional prejudices about parenting and the fact that mothers fought an historic battle to balance family and work. The study suggests that employers improve their relations with new fathers by offering flextime, telecommuting opportunities, and daycare options on top of encouraging them to take paternity leave. The study also advises employers to proactively reach out to new fathers by organizing support groups and providing informative collateral, all of which can help shatter traditional social barriers that keep some fathers from being forthright about their feelings, thereby preventing them from taking the time they need to be with their kids.

Equal genders with equal frustrations

Returning to the theme of gender equality, it seems both men and women throughout North America feel equally about the work-family balance offered by their employers – and the feeling isn’t good. In the US, The Pew Research Center found that 50% of men and 56% of women find it difficult to balance work and family. Likewise, 48% of men and 52% of women said that they’d rather stay home with their children than work. In Canada, the stats are no better. Based on the responses of 25,000 Canadians, most of who were parents, a 2012 survey conducted by researchers at Carleton University and Western University showed that flextime has decreased in Canada by a third over the past decade, that 60% of respondents were highly stressed, and that work, much of which is taken home, robs families of their time together. In light of these findings, employers need to consider not only what they can do to keep the modern father happy, but what they can do to keep everyone happy.

As touched on above, happy personal lives, including fulfilling family lives, equate to more productive employees and a robust bottom line. To achieve what is best for their organizations and everyone in them, employers should implement a variety of family-friendly policies – and many do. However, at times, those policies, based on an ingrained yet outdated definition of masculinity, overlook recent research that sheds light on the complexities of masculinity, the role of the modern father, and the importance of paternity leave for families and businesses.

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