While Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is advising working women to Lean In, there is also movement to encourage office-bound fathers to achieve better work-life balance. According to “Discrimination at Work: Workplace Rights for Fathers” [PDF], a recent survey by London-based law firm Allen & Overy, almost 60 percent of male respondents said they would consider taking time off from work to care for a newborn child.
The firm examined attitudes surrounding paternity leave as part of broader survey of various factors contributing to workplace discrimination. Allen & Overy collected data late last year from a total of 1,163 workers throughout the United Kingdom.
In March the U.K. extended unpaid parental leave for both mothers and fathers from 13 weeks to 18 weeks. A proposal to make leave time even more flexible for new parents is currently set to become law in 2015.
Henchoz knows a few fathers who have already taken advantage of the recently extended leave. But those men are in the minority. “Hopefully when the 2015 changes come,” she says, “more and more men will feel empowered to take that change.”
Because there is a shortage of women in senior employment roles, Henchoz says the government has made an effort to 1) keep women in the workforce once they’ve had children, and 2) encourage men to take on greater responsibility for childcare. The stereotypical view that women are the primary care providers seeps into the workplace, she says.
“We hope we’ll see more men taking advantage of these rights,” says Henchoz.
In the U.K., the national leave allowances apply to all employers. There isn’t similar blanket protection for employees to take parental leave in the United States.
More than half of U.S. employees are covered by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires employers with 50 or more workers are to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave to parents of a newborn. According to the U.S. Department of Labor [PDF], the birth of a child was the reason for 3.9 percent of women who took FMLA leave last year and 2.5 percent of men.
States and businesses can choose to offer leave on top of what the FMLA dictates. According to a report released last year by the National Partnership for Women and Families, 18 states offer no protections for workers to take time off beyond what’s laid out in the federal law.
Henchoz doesn’t anticipate much of a shakeup in the U.K. workplace as a result of the increase in leave that went into effect in March. But the 2015 amendments could be a big adjustment for employers.
“Once the baby’s born, the mother will have to take two weeks’ compulsory leave for medical reasons and bonding with the child,” says Henchoz. The remaining 50 weeks of the year after the birth can be taken as shared parental leave. “That means that the woman can come back to work for a period of time and the father can take time off,” she says. “Then the father can go back to work for a period of time, and the mother can take time off. And they can keep alternating between each other.”
The leave allowance will give new parents the opportunity to structure the leave in a way that suits their own family needs. But for employers, accommodating the inconsistency will demand administrative agility. They’ll have to find someone to cover the work as the employee potentially comes and goes, while still keeping customers and clients happy, says Henchoz.
“But at the same time, an employer can’t treat an employee less favorably for wanting to take the leave they’re entitled to,” she says. “So it’s going to be quite a fine line for employers to walk to make sure they get that right.”
The effects shared parental leave will have on U.K. employers will depend on whether fathers decide to take full advantage of the expansion of rights.
According to the survey, males of parenting age expressed a high level of interest in doing so. Seventy-nine percent of men between the ages of 25 and 34 said they would consider taking leave. Seventy percent of men age 35 to 44 said they would consider it.
Henchoz says the reasons given by those men who expressed reluctance to take leave weren’t quite what the surveyors expected. In discussions with female workers, Henchoz has found many of them to be worried about job loss or diminished opportunity for advancement when taking maternity leave.
But only 7 percent of the men surveyed said career progression would be a factor in their decision, and just 6 percent indicated a lack of employer encouragement might influence them to avoid taking leave. The top reasons given by men for not considering paternity leave were lack of preparation for financial sacrifice (42 percent) and that it hadn’t traditionally been done (26 percent).
“Men seem to be looking at it from a very different perspective,” says Henchoz.
She hopes more men will consider the option of paternity leave once they see that it can be done successfully. “If some men can demonstrate that they took four months off and it didn’t have an effect on their career—they’ve come back to the same job, they’ve not been demoted,” she says that will influence others to take leave.