Lean Out, Dads

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Father and baby boy in living room watching TV
Photo: Oliver Rossi/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Last week, the internet lit up with the news that Netflix would give unlimited leave to new mothers and fathers for up to a year after the adoption or birth of a child. A very different portion of the internet lit up after a new study showed that women in a number of college majors actually out-earn men when they are right out of school, and that the aggregate wage gap is just pennies on the dollar. But by the time those same women are in the middle of their careers, their male counterparts have pulled away, earning pennies, nickels, and dimes more across all analyzed majors.

It probably was not Netflix’s intention for the former to address the latter. Indeed, in a blog post, the company explained that the policy change was intended to help the company attract and retain talent. “We want employees to have the flexibility and confidence to balance the needs of their growing families without worrying about work or finances,” it said. “Parents can return part-time, full-time, or return and then go back out as needed. We’ll just keep paying them normally, eliminating the headache of switching to state or disability pay. Each employee gets to figure out what’s best for them and their family, and then works with their managers for coverage during their absences.”

But a move like Netflix’s, if undertaken by more companies across more industries, could very much help to narrow the wage gap. Both men and women would keep earning through the birth of a child, eliminating the portion of the gap accounted for by women taking unpaid leave after giving birth. Policies like Netflix’s might also help keep women in the workforce: Why drop out to take care of your kid if you’re still getting a full-time paycheck and you can return to work with flexible, part-time hours?

There’s just one hitch: What if the only people who took advantage of an unlimited leave policy were women? What if those women were mommy-tracked away from the most intense, remunerative parts of a business, toward more marginal, lower-paying positions? The truth is that this already happens in many businesses. Unlimited does not mean “consequence-free,” after all.

No, for more generous parental-leave policies to really tackle the broader problem of women seeing their paychecks shrink and careers derailed by having a child during their peak earning years, norms need to change, too. Men do not just need more generous paternity policies. They need to use them. It needs to become normal for men to take weeks or months off, and to require more flexible schedules to accommodate their new family member’s needs when they return.

That is just not the case right now. Indeed, men actually see an increase in their earnings when they become fathers, partly because dads “increase work effort following the birth of their first child,” partly because working fathers are perceived as both “competent and warm.” (Guess which one of those two descriptors moms tend to lose.)  

Moreover, men who do take time off to care for their infants face certain amounts of stigma and see repercussions in their careers. “Fathers with even a short work absence because of family obligations are recommended for fewer rewards and receive lower performance ratings,” one Harvard Business Review summary of the relevant research finds. “Men may be openly mocked for taking time off, may get passed over for promotions, or may suffer others’ quiet doubts about their competence. The message to working fathers is clear: Being a breadwinner who is married to a homemaker and is a father can help your career. But if you try to play an active role in family care, your career may suffer.” Given those realities, most dads take about a day off for every month that a mom takes.  

So, how to get men to take some time off? Some countries use a policy lever. Sweden, for instance, has a “use it or lose it” parental-leave policy. Families get 16 months of leave, which parents can divvy up however they want. But two of those months are reserved for each parent. If he or she does not take them, they disappear. In 2016, the government plans to add a third reserved month to help close its not inconsiderable pay gap. The policy “is something we’ve really looked forward to. We know that this is a key issue towards attaining greater [gender] equality,” Annika Strandhäll, the country’s minister for social security, has said.

That kind of system would never fly in the United States, where the parental-leave standards are threadbare, of course. But a big, splashy, headline-grabbing corporate trend that encouraged men to take leave — encouraged employers to give it to them, and to applaud them for taking it — would really help. To that end, Netflix’s policy is great. It sends a message that the company wants its employees to do what they need to do at home, and puts pressure on other technology companies to do the same in order to attract and retain talent. More men talking about taking leave could help, too: Research also shows that peer pressure encourages men to take time when their kids are born. Imagine how Mark Zuckerberg’s Lean Out would top best-seller lists if he takes three months away from Facebook when his daughter arrives.