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Why Mandatory Paid Parental Leave Shouldn’t Be Just Another Dad Joke

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Jane Steffens, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

DISCLAIMER: In this post I focus primarily on family leave as it relates to heterosexual married couples. I recognize that this fails to address the situation of many law firm employees. The ultimate goal of my argument is not to enforce heteronormative rhetoric that excludes others from the conversation, but to advocate for one small part of a cultural shift that hopefully will help all employees in the long run.

Law firms are becoming better at providing paid maternity leave for their female employees, but new fathers at law firms have consistently taken little to no paid parental leave, even when it is available. A recent Forbes article notes that while half of fathers think men should take paternity leave, only 36% actually take all their permitted leave.

One of the primary problems surrounding family leave at law firms is the distinction between maternity and paternity leave. Many large law firms offer 16 weeks of paid leave for mothers or primary caregivers, and 6 weeks for fathers or secondary caregivers. I would argue that creating mandatory paid family leave for all parents supports gender equality and will boost productivity and employee morale.

The term “family leave” or “parental leave” should include not only new fathers and mothers, but also same sex-couples, single parents, people who adopt, and etc. Similarly, using terms like “primary” and “secondary” caregivers reinforces gender norms that tell the world women should be shouldering most of the domestic responsibilities at home. Rather than engaging in this rhetoric, law firms should encourage men to step up and do their share of work in caring for their newborn children, which will in turn help to redefine gender stereotypes from within the institution.

A reason that both parents should take mandatory leave is the wage gap. Women are often penalized for taking extended leave after childbirth, resulting in fewer promotions and raises. If all employees were to take an equal amount of time off when having children, it would set more equal expectations and serve to narrow the disproportionate effect of maternity leave.

In Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” she gives personal testimony of being “back on e-mail from my hospital room the day after giving birth,” sending the message that commitment to work translates into success. (pg. 127). With mandatory family leave, women might not have to make these sacrifices in order to stay competitive in the workplace. Furthermore, mothers who have the support of their husbands in the early weeks of motherhood can take time to answer their own emails and catch up on work, which could ultimately lead to a promotion and better financial success for the family unit in the long run. Studies also show that women return to work sooner when fathers take family leave.

Paid family leave is beneficial to a baby’s development. Studies show that the brain of a newborn infant forms up to a thousand new connections every second. Because of how this brain development works, bonding is not instantaneous, but rather is a process. According to a Harvard study, not only do scent and touch play a role, but babies who get unreliable or varying responses from adults in their environment don’t form connections in the way he or she should.

Fathers who don’t get mandatory paid family leave are denied opportunities to form an early relationship with their newborn. Similarly, the more adults that are consistently present in the early weeks of life, the more likely a baby will have constant skin to skin contact, an important part of cognitive and communicative development.

A major problem with paid family leave is the fear of taking time off. This is especially true for men because taking maternity leave is more culturally acceptable than taking paternity leave. Law firm culture explicitly rewards sheer quantities of hours spent on the job and routinely praises male leaders for having sacrificed their personal life to the firm. This frames the decision of professional or personal experience as a mutually exclusive choice for attorneys. Combined with traditional gender roles, law firm culture not only keeps men away from their families unnecessarily, but it can actually lead to decreased productivity and breed resentment. Just like women, many men feel fulfilled and happy when they spend time with their offspring.

Mandatory family leave is a viable solution that shows men their law firm values their choice to combine family and career. It sends the message that men do not have to choose family or firm, but can pursue both without being seen as a bad lawyer or bad father. In order to encourage men to actually take the leave and not work through it, attorney’s in senior roles can set the tone for younger attorneys. Peer influence can change workplace culture and the more employees who take advantage of and talk about paid family leave, the more it will be accepted in that environment.

Firm management should also be aware of the messaging it puts out about family leave. This also applies to recruiting efforts. I personally chose my firm in part because it has a reputation for engaging in elite work while also promoting work-life balance. Men who value family time might have the same considerations. In fact, 83% of American millennials said that they would be more likely to join a company that offers paid parental leave.

In our less than perfect world, if law firms are not prepared to offer additional family leave to men, management can normalize options like temporarily reducing hours for new fathers. While these options are more often utilized by new mothers, flexibility and work-life balance issues apply to men too. Men are often excluded from the conversation about paid family leave, even though they play a large role in workplace and household culture.

Paid parental leave is not an issue specific to women, but rather touches all employees in the United States. Mandatory paid parental leave will help us to take a step forward in the fight for human equality.