Fathers can be quite important. I’ve got a good one and am very grateful for it. The behavioural science evidence also backs me up. Early paternal participation has a positive impact on a child’s IQ, mental and physical health, career success, and happiness. When fathers do spend time with their babies, they are also likely to experience higher life satisfaction.
The benefits of spending time with babies when they are born are also not limited to the child and the father. Research in Sweden has also suggested that every additional month of parental leave taken by the father increases the mother’s earnings by 6.7%. This is important as maternity is a factor (among others) that can explain the gender pay gap. As the burden of pregnancy, childbirth and then parental leave typically all fall on the birthing parent this leaves an economic scar that can leave many women struggling to catch up with men in the labour market.
Despite the benefits of shared parental leave, it has taken us a long time to implement systems that allow it. When I was born in the 1980s, my father was not able to take time off to spend time with me. My partner’s dad was only given enough time off to be there for her birth and then had to return to work – and he worked in the very hospital that she was born.
Thankfully, in many workplaces this is no longer the case. In many countries, secondary carers are given parental leave. At BIT Australia new fathers are also lucky to receive 20 weeks of paid leave if they are the primary carer. (Our other offices also have similarly generous policies.) From December to May, I was able to take this time off to spend with my daughter, Teddy.
My experience was very much in line with what the countless studies on the subject would have predicted. Sleepless nights aside, spending time with Teddy was delightful and definitely increased my life satisfaction. (Despite my psychological training I have restrained myself from administering any IQ tests to Teddy just yet.)
There were also benefits that I had not seen in the literature. Many of the services that I needed to use were in my community. These ranged from health services to playgroups in the local school. Being the primary carer brought me closer to my community as I started to get to know other parents in the area and got to know the volunteers, educators and health workers who delivered these vital programmes.
I was not the only person to get the benefit from my parental leave. Rather than leaving my partner economically scarred, my partner was able to jump ahead in her career during my paternity leave and found a new job. We both gained different perspectives on parenthood and a shared empathy. Both of us experienced being a primary carer left at home with your baby and being the working parent apart from your child. Finally, my team was able to take on more responsibilities in the company and develop their own careers.
Sadly my experience is atypical. Many employers will not top-up pay for fathers, in the same way that they do for mothers and many fathers do not take it even if it is available to them. In 2021 my colleagues in the UK completed a project to encourage men to take up paternity leave. Their work found that men at two banks viewed people who took paternity leave as just as committed as their colleagues and just as competent. They also found that twice as many male workers at two banks supported male colleagues taking at least 4 months of leave as they had assumed.
This is a case of pluralistic ignorance, the phenomenon whereby people hold a particular opinion privately while mistakenly believing the majority of people disagree with that opinion. This pluralistic ignorance has a chilling effect on the number of men taking paternity leave, as men fear that they will be judged for taking leave.
Thankfully, the trial pointed at some potential solutions. Providing feedback highlighting that most men are supportive of taking parental leave significantly increased participants’ intentions to take 5 and 8 weeks of parental leave. Sadly, it also identified some potential unintentional effects. These were mitigated in a replication of the trial, but did highlight that further work does need to be done in this area.
What does this mean for fathers?
The process of running the trial did highlight other potential solutions. One of these is having senior managers visibly and authentically endorsing the use of shared parental leave. This is part of the reason for writing this blog. If you are a male senior manager (we are overrepresented here) and in a position to take parental leave, then I hope that this blog has persuaded you to consider taking it. And enjoying it.
However, even if you are not a male senior manager and in a position to take parental leave, there is still something you can do. You can address the pluralistic ignorance I mentioned before and speak openly about your support for shared parental leave. You can work with your HR team to ensure that shared parental leave is available. You also get in touch with us to develop new interventions to allow new fathers to be present from the start.