Paid Parental Leave Is Necessary, The Spin Is Not

by Elizabeth S. Bernstein

The United States continues to be virtually the only developed country which does not guarantee any paid time off work to new parents. A study recently released by the New America think tank explores the “complicated, confusing, and uneven leave landscape for workers,” and the behaviors that result. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act entitles workers only to unpaid time off, and many employers and workers do not fall even within that mandate. While some employers, and public insurance programs in some states, do offer paid family leave, such benefits were found less likely to be available to lower-income households and to workers without college degrees.

According to the New America researchers, nearly half of the parents they surveyed reported taking no leave after the birth or adoption of a child. The weight of this finding is underscored by the definition the researchers used for “leave” – namely, anything “more than a day or two off work,” paid or unpaid. The mothers and fathers who reported taking no leave had not, in other words, taken even three days off work.

As documented in a previous report from New America, job-protected paid family leaves are associated with improved physical and mental health for both children and parents. This new research could therefore serve as yet another reminder of the deleterious effects of the family leave policies we have had, and continue to have, in the United States.

What a shame then, to see the study treated as if its primary contribution was to have turned up a previously unappreciated form of gender discrimination. The headline in HuffPost was this: “Even When Men Take Parental Leave, They’re Paid More, New Study Finds.” Great click-bait, and also completely misleading.

New America did find a higher percentage of men than women reporting that their leaves were fully or partially paid. But the authors also acknowledged that while they did not inquire as to the lengths of leaves taken by parents, other research establishes that men typically tend to take no more than one week of leave following the birth of a child, while the median length of leave for women is eleven weeks. The New America researchers also considered leave to be “paid” if it was compensated on any basis – for example as vacation days or sick leave. Given that, the reason that fathers were more often paid while on leave is that they were likely to decline to take unpaid leave at all, and likely to keep the length of any leave at (if not below) the number of days they would be paid for.

In other words, the conclusion to be drawn from the New America study is that men position themselves to be paid for a greater proportion of their time on leave by confining themselves to short leaves and declining to take unpaid leave altogether. Nothing in the study indicated that employers were offering men more generous paid leave benefits than women. In fact, the authors reported that it was men who had had to fight discriminatory leave policies, and that fathers were more likely than mothers to report not having access to leave when they needed or wanted it.

The HuffPost piece acknowledges that employers aren’t purposefully giving men more money to take paternity leave – that what is happening instead is that men aren’t taking any time off unless it’s paid for, and take far shorter leaves that can often be covered with vacation and sick days. There is nothing therefore to justify the assertion in the article that “men receive more money than women when they take leave,” or the characterization of the situation as “a gender pay gap in parental leave.” If anything, given that men often decline or underutilize even paid leave opportunities which women are far more likely to take advantage of, the amount of money paid to employees on leave is likely higher for women than for men.

Though more measured in its treatment of the New America study, the New York Times nevertheless asserts that the study found men were more likely than women to be in jobs providing paid leave. It did not. The Times too then proceeds to get the causation the wrong way around. Why, wonders Claire Cain Miller in The Upshot, do men not take more leave when they are more likely to be fully paid for it than women? The assumption is that the availability of full pay comes first and should motivate the taking of leave, but that for some reason the cause is not having the expected effect. In actuality the causation is the other way around – it is because men take such limited leave that they are more likely to be fully paid for it.

Aside from objecting to the misleading characterization of the New America data, I question how much the goal of improving support for families across the board is advanced by readiness to see the issues involved in terms of male-versus-female. The focus at the Times is on the problematic differences between the genders: “When balancing work and family becomes difficult, women tend to resort to caregiving and men to earning money.” Over at Huffpost it is clear which of these options is considered more desirable. Noting how many people in the New America survey said economic factors explain why men don’t take caregiving leave, author Amanda Peck observes that “Women, of course, don’t always have that luxury.” The “luxury,” if I understand it correctly, is the luxury of going to work soon after giving birth. The “luxury” is the ability to prioritize the traditionally male over the traditionally female.

There is something gained by those who “resort to earning money” – and there is something lost. There is something gained by those who “resort to caregiving” – and there is something lost. Some of what is lost by caregivers, whatever their gender, can and should be alleviated by mandatory paid leave. And while there is much to be said for encouraging all parents, fathers and mothers both, to take time off work to be with their children, the reality is that gender convergence hasn’t been achieved even in nations which have made substantial efforts in that regard, like the Scandinavian countries where mothers continue to take far longer leaves than fathers. The essential point is not how the behavior of men stacks up against the behavior of women. The essential point is to support families, and here in the United States, we have a long way to go.