Back to Blog

STUDY: Paternity Leave is Not a Luxury, it is a Responsibility

Parental leaves, an essential part of an effective transition to parenthood, are often discussed as though they are a kind of vacation, where people get paid to spend weeks off playing with their children. Paternity leave is too often seen as a lazy luxury for men, perhaps because there is no clearly defined role for fathers during early childhood in the U.S. This attitude was well described by radio announcer Mike Francesa’s comments about NY Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy’s paternity leave in 2014: “I don’t know why you need three days off… You see the birth and you get back. What do you do in the first couple days? Maybe you take care of the other kids… Your wife doesn’t need your help the first couple days, you know that.i  While Mr. Murphy received a great deal of public support after these comments the reality for the majority of dads in the U.S. is less positive.

The Uphill Battle for Paternity Leave

About 80% of U.S. employers with 50 or more employees offer at least 12 weeks of (un)paid paternity leave, suggesting that about 20% of employers are out of compliance with the Family and Medical Leave Act, and only 14% of employers offer paid paternity leave.ii From an individual employee perspective, government statistics cite 38% of men reporting no option to take paternity leave, paid or not, for the birth of a child.iii


Even when paternity leave is offered, men may be reluctant to take it. According to one study, while about 85% of new fathers at four Fortune 500 companies take some time off after the birth of a child the majority only take a week or two. Furthermore, half of these men continued to work part-time and answered emails during their leave. iv Another nationally representative study found that while 89% of fathers took leave, 22% took less than one week, 42% took one week and only 36% took two or more weeks off work. Fathers who took leave were more likely to have finished high school, have higher prestige positions, and earned an average of $10,000 more per year, v all signs that paternity leave is set up as a luxury for more privileged men, not as an essential part of fatherhood.

While some may assume these men are workaholics or disinterested in being an equal partner in child care with their spouse, research has shown that men who take substantive paternity leaves suffer socially, professionally, and financially. Studies have shown that men who engage in active caregiving can find themselves teased and insulted at work, accused of not being able to stand up to their Men who use flexible work arrangements, whether taking temporary family leave or working from home or part time, receive worse job evaluations and lower hourly raises, vii and are at greater risk of being laid off and or demoted. viii Both men and women who take time off for family reasons also incur a larger wage penalty than those who take similar amounts of time off for non-family reasons. When men reduced their hours for family reasons, they lost an average of 15.5 percent in earnings over the course of their careers, compared with a drop of 9.8 percent for women and 11.2 percent for men who reduced their hours for other reasons. ix Furthermore, a recent study found that men who work part-time have greater difficulty acquiring a new job than women who have worked part-time.x

These findings show that when men begin to take on a more mixed family role, providing income and care, they find it more difficult to succeed as breadwinners, the primary role ascribed to fathers in the U.S. Given that mothers face even greater hurdles to mixing work and child care, it is a very rational choice for fathers to double-down on earning income, both to maintain their own reputation as “good fathers and employees” and as a response to the penalties that their wives and partners face.xi However rational the choice may be for maintaining incomes, the focus on men as breadwinners ignores the benefits they offer to their families and society as caregivers.

The Benefits at the Top of the Hill

To date most parental leave research focuses on outcomes for mothers, an outgrowth of the focus on “fixing” working mothers to function better in an economy designed for an unrealistic “ideal” employee who has no responsibilities beyond paid work. Most studies focused on paternity leave have been done in countries where such leave is more evenly spread throughout the economy. The results of these studies have been fairly positive and suggest that paternity leave is more than just a vacation. The research has shown that fathers in the U.S. who take longer leaves are more involved in child care (e.g., diapering, feeding, dressing, bathing and night time care) nine months after returning to work than those taking shorter leaves.xii Paternal support is valuable for enhancing the mother’s transition to parenthood and is cited as a “central protective factor” against the risk of maternal depression after birth.xiii

The sustained level of paternal child care and mental health benefits may help to explain the results of other studies showing that longer paternity leaves are advantageous for women in countries that have implemented them more broadly. In Quebec, legal reforms making paternity leaves longer and more accessible, are associated with a greater likelihood (7% increase over baseline estimates) that mothers will return to their employers after a maternity leave. The same study also found that the new program was associated with more equal roles between men and women: women spend more time at their jobs and men spend more time engaged with housework.xiv In Sweden, a mother’s future earnings increased 7% for every month that her partner took parental leave.xv These findings suggest that the key to greater gender equity may not be found solely in efforts to advance women in the workplace but also require efforts to incentivize and support men to invest time at home.

Paving the Way to More Paternity Leave

Research indicates at least two things that improve the uptake of paternity leave:

  1. Government efforts, such as California and New Jersey’s paid family leave programs make leave more accessible and financially viable while leaving most businesses unharmed or better off. Studies have shown that a majority of businesses, small and large, in both states report no negative business effects from the laws.xvi xvii
  2. Fathers who do take paternity leave, must embrace their status as role models. Not only should men take their full leave but they should be open about their experience. A study in Norway, showed that seeing a male coworker take leave increases the odds of the next eligible father to do the same by 11% or more if the role model is a manager.xviii

Contrary to the way paternity leave is currently conducted in the U.S., it should not be managed as a luxury benefit for a few highly privileged families, but instead be used as an essential tool in creating greater gender equity for both men and women.

i As reported in Murray, M. (2014). Radio host rips MLB player for paternity leave, suggests C-section before season. Today Parents. Quote slightly edited for brevity.

ii Matos, K. & Galinsky, E. (2014). 2014 National study of employers. New York, NY: Families and Work Institute.

iii The Council of Economic Advisers. (2014). The economics of paid and unpaid leave. Washington, DC.

iv Harrington, B., Van Deusen, F., Sabatini Fraone, J., Eddy, S., & Haas, L. (2014). The new dad: Take your leave. Boston, MA: Boston College Center for Work and Family.

v Nepomnyaschy, L. & Waldfogel, J. (2007). Paternity leave and fathers’ involvement with their young children: Evidence from the American Ecls-B. Community, Work and Family, 10(4), 427-453.

vi Berdahl, J.A. & Moon, S.H. (2013). Workplace mistreatment of middle class workers based on sex, parenthood, and caregiving. Journal of Social Issues, 69(2), 341–366.

vii Vandello, J.A., Hettinger, V.E., Bosson, J.K., & Siddiqi, J. (2013). When equal isn’t really equal: The masculine dilemma of seeking work flexibility. Journal of Social Issues, 69(2), 303-321.

viii Rudman, L.A. & Mescher, K. (2013). Penalizing men who request a family leave: Is flexibility stigma a femininity stigma? Journal of Social Issues, 69(2), 322-340.

ix Coltrane, S., Miller, E.C., DeHaan, T. & Stewart, L. (2013). Fathers and the flexibility stigma. Journal of Social Issues, 69(2), 279-302

x Pedulla, D.S. (2016). Penalized or protected? Gender and the consequences of nonstandard and mismatched employment histories. American Sociological Review, 81(2), 262-289.

xi About 16% of same sex couples (10% of male couples and 22% of female couples) have children. Providing appropriate leave for same sex couples goes beyond the gendered framework of maternity/paternity leave to regularly include adoption leave. Policy makers should consider all forms of parental leave in order to maintain equity across diverse family formation experiences. Fertility and Family Statistics Branch (2013). Frequently asked questions about same-sex couple households. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.

xii Nepomnyaschy, L. & Waldfogel, J. (2007). Paternity leave and fathers’ involvement with their young children: Evidence from the American Ecls-B. Community, Work and Family, 10(4), 427-453.

xiii Feldman, R., Sussman, A. L. & Zigler, E. (2004). “Parental leave and work adaptation at the transition to parenthood: Individual, marital and social correlates.” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 25(4), 459-479.

xiv Patnaik, A. (2016). Reserving time for daddy: The short and long-run consequences of fathers’ quotas. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

xv Johansson, EA. (2010). The effect of own and spousal parental leave on earnings. Kyrkogardsgatan, Uppsala: The Institute for Labor Market Policy Evaluation.

xvi Appelbaum, E. & Milkman, R. (2011). Leaves That Pay Employer and Worker Experiences with Paid Family Leave in California. Washington, DC: Center for Economic and Policy Research

xvii Ramirez, M. (2012). The Impact of Paid Family Leave on New Jersey Businesses. Trenton, NJ: New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

xviii Dahl, G.B., Løken, K.V. & Mogstad, M. (2014). Peer Effects in Program Participation. American Economic Review, 104(7), 2049–2074.