The gender gap nobody’s talking about

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When an employee has a child, it’s inevitable that the mother will have to take time off, usually through FMLA leave. Almost one-fifth (18%) of companies also provide paid maternity leave, and 16% also offer parental leave to fathers (Society for Human Resource Management, 2013).

So why aren’t fathers taking time off, too?

When the Center for Economic and Policy Research looked into the leave-taking habits of employees around the nation, they found that the ratio of women to men using parental leave was nine to one.

While some may attribute it to a macho-man stigma, the figure has more to do with the lack of paid leave, says CEPR senior economist Eileen Appelbaum. Because men are often expected to bring in the proverbial bacon, it is impossible for them to use FMLA leave much of the time.

Statistics seem to back up her theory. In California, where paid parental leave has been guaranteed since 2004, the proportion of men using the time off has steadily increased. After the law was passed, 17% of the leaves were taken by men, but by 2012, that number almost doubled to nearly one-third.

She also notes that employers may need to better communicate that men are encouraged to take time for their families.

“I think it’s a question of – possibly warranted – concerns about retaliation from the employer,” Appelbaum says. “It’s one thing to have it on the books; it’s another thing for the company to say ‘we think children need their fathers’.”

For HR, that means prioritizing the celebration of family for men as well as women.

“We visited a company in California that very proudly told us they had just had their first baby shower for a male employee,” she says. “You can be sure that sent a signal through the entire company that said ‘if you’re a man and you’re having a baby, we value that’.”

Workplace equality in parental leave also requires working with line managers to ensure that male employees feel like their families are valued.

“The company can have all the policies, but there’s research that shows whether the employees access that policy depends on the immediate supervisor,” Appelbaum says.

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