Brave Men Take Paternity Leave – by Gretchen Gavett

“Fathers with even a short work absence because of family obligations are recommended for fewer rewards and receive lower performance ratings,” write Amy J. C. Cuddy and Joan Williams in their2012 HBR article, citing two separate studies. While other research has shown that fathers are held to lower performance standards and are more likely to be hired and promoted than childless men with the same qualifications, these studies showed that effect was reversed when fathers played an active role in their children’s lives. As a result,  “Men are being driven out of caregiving roles,” write Cuddy and Williams.

Many people would like to change that. But there is a long way to go: According to a recent Boston College Center for Work and Family survey, “the majority of fathers take only about one day of leave time to bond with their new children for every month the typical mother takes.” In total, 76% of fathers go back to work after one week or less after the birth of a child, and 96% after two weeks or less.

But research from economists Gordon B. Dahl, Katrine V. Løken, and Magne Mogstad, published this month in The American Economic Review, shows that, when paid paternity leave is made available by law, fathers do use it. Importantly, this isn’t just because the law exists; rather, it’s because when some brave souls take leave, that seems to reduce the stigma and encourage peers to take time off, too.

Using data from Norway, which implemented a law allowing four weeks of paid leave for dads in April 1993, the researchers first isolated how many eligible men took leave across the board. The rise, from 3% prior to 1993 to 70% in 2006, is considerable.

Paternity Leave Taken in Norway

But when they specifically isolated the influence of peers — and in particular, a male coworker or a brother — a more complex story began to emerge. The figure below is similar to the one above, showing that “from 1993 to 1999, program participation went from a little over 50% to over 70% of eligible coworkers.” However, as Gordon Dahl points out, the influence of peers — both direct combined with the snowball effect — accounts for 21% of the total increase in participation in the parental leave program from 1993 to 1999. And as time goes on, the snowball effect becomes more pronounced.

Peers Influence Paternity Leave chart

The top line represents the actual use of leave by coworkers after the first father paved the way; the bottom subtracts the estimated peer effect (derived from a regression discontinuity design based on the cut-off date of April 2013) from the total take-up to show “how much lower leave take-up would have been in each year had the original peer father not influenced any of his coworkers, either directly or indirectly.”

In the end, Dahl says, “coworkers and brothers who were linked to a father who had his child immediately after the reform — versus immediately before the reform — were 3.5% and 4.7% more likely, respectively, to take parental leave.” But when a coworker actually takes parental leave, “the next coworker to have a child at his workplace is 11% more likely to take paternity leave.” Slightly more pronounced, the next brother to have a child is 15% more likely to take time off.

And while any male coworker taking leave can reduce stigma, the effect of a manager doing so is more profound. Specifically, “the estimated peer effect is over two and a half times larger if the peer father is predicted to be a manager in the firm as opposed to a regular coworker.”

Also worth noting: the economists didn’t find statistically significant differences in pay and future employment prospects between fathers who did and did not take leave — though they did see less than a 2% reduction in total earnings.

The researchers note a few important caveats, however: For one, because of their methodology, they only measured peer effect in smaller companies because those employees are more likely to interact directly. Two, there’s not much of a peer effect in companies where the average tenure is 10 years or more; in firms where there’s a lot of turnover, the effect was much greater. These results “suggest the benefit of workplace-specific information is more valuable where there is more job uncertainty.” Peers can provide information and help reduce that uncertainty among dads who are on the fence about taking leave.

Third, there’s no evidence that weaker peer ties have any effect on paternity leave. For example, the researchers were unable to find peer influence between brothers-in-law or in a geographical neighborhood.

Lastly, they found no indication that Norway’s 1993 reform improved gender equality across workplaces in general.

Regardless, these findings represent an important bridge between public policy and organizational (and familial) behavior. As the economists note, “advocates of… public interventions often argue that traditional gender roles in both the family and labor markets can be changed or modified via peer influence.” This study seems to confirm this argument.

As calls for family-friendly work policies increase, particularly for men — and as companies like Yahoo, Bank of America, and PwC instate paid paternity policies — it’s worth keeping in mind that a law or on-the-books rule is just the first step in encouraging dads to take time away from work. Just as important are those fathers who are willing to actually use their paid time off; their actions can set a lasting and meaningful precedent for other men, even many years down the road.


Gretchen Gavett is an associate editor at the Harvard Business Review. Follow her on Twitter @gretchenmarg.


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