Paternity leave is ignored by corporate America — and that’s a problem for women

Corporate America has a gender problem when it comes to parental leave, with a new study finding that Fortune 500 companies are far likelier to provide paid leave to mothers than fathers.

Ironically, that’s a problem not only for men, but for women seeking equality in the workplace, experts say.

Among Fortune 500 companies, 72%offer some sort of paid parental leave, but fathers are generally considered secondary to mothers, according to the study from Ball State sociology professor Richard Petts, and Davidson College sociology professor Gayle Kaufman. For example, one-third of those companies offer twice as much leave to mothers as to fathers, their analysis found.

Paternity leave has long taken a back seat to the debate over paid maternity leave, a benefit that’s mandated by the governments of all developed countries except the U.S. But the pandemic is bringing a sharper focus to gender equality in the workplace as millions of mothers and fathers struggle with juggling working from home or continuing to commute to work while their children are remote schooling.

Moms are often bearing the brunt of that shift, with the Boston Consulting Group finding that women are shouldering an additional 15 hours of domestic work per week than men during the crisis. Paternity leave has a role to play in equalizing gender norms both at home and in the workplace, Petts says. Currently, the norm is for men to take a day or two off after the birth of a child, but anything longer than one or two weeks is uncommon, he adds. “If you give equal amount of time for both mothers and fathers, then you avoid emphasizing that women are different — that they will mostly do most of the childcare — and the consequences that come from that,” Petts says.

Petts says he was drawn to the topic of paternity leave after the birth of his child more than 7 years ago. When he asked to take time off, he says he was told he could take a couple days , but if he wanted more than that, he’d need a doctor’s note to say that his wife was unable to care for their child.

“I was floored,” he recalls.

Fortune 500 companies, which represent the biggest businesses by revenue, are likely offering the most generous benefits available to American workers. Yet only about 17% of workers had access to paid family leave in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

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