The Corner

Getting Men to ‘Lean Out’ Is Unlikely to Help Women Advance

Catherine Rampell deserves credit for noting in this piece for the New York Times that generous maternity-leave policies — which are often held up as the key to women breaking glass ceilings — may not actually be the best way to further women’s economic advancement.

She notes that “work-life accommodations often paradoxically limit career trajectories,” and that “Women in Sweden, Finland and Denmark — and other countries held up as paragons of gender parity — are much more likely to end up in traditional pink-collar positions than are their counterparts in the United States.”

There is really nothing paradoxical about it. Encouraging women to take long periods out of the workforce, even if they receive pay and a guaranteed job upon return, doesn’t help them maintain their competitive edge. Even if employers studiously follow the rules when making employment decisions and pretend to be unaware that women will be likely to leave their jobs, it inevitably affects how many female workers are viewed and the responsibilities they are given.

In acknowledging the potential drawbacks of maternity and flex-time policies, Rampell turns instead to the idea that paternity leave policies are the real key to women’s advancement. Giving women the ability to “lean in” and balance work and family isn’t going to do it; we need men to lean out of the workplace and into the nursery if we are going to achieve real equality.

She applauds countries that are trying to coax men into taking more leave time with financial rewards, and notes a study out of Cornell that suggests that when men take leave they permanently become more engaged in child care and domestic work.

Color me skeptical. Certainly it’s possible that paying men to stay home for a couple weeks after the birth of their child influences their parenting expectations permanently, but as the study notes, there may be a selection-effect at work — those fathers who opt to take the leave were the ones already more likely to shoulder more household responsibilities in the future.

Rampell should also consider other research that suggests more generous paternity leave policies can be a blow to the cause of women’s career advancement. Steven Rhoads of the University of Virginia studied the effects of leave policies in academia meant to level the playing field by offering both men and women leave time following the birth of a child, and found that these actually put women at a disadvantage.  Rhoads concluded: 

Male professors who take paid leave tend to use a majority of their time on things other than infant care, such as advancing their publishing agendas. . . . In contrast, women use the time to do a significant majority of infant care tasks – on top of breastfeeding, perhaps the most time-consuming and physically demanding task.

This dynamic likely sounds familiar to many mothers. Let’s be honest: It’s nice having the dad home to help keep the house running after a baby is born. Yet the experience of moms and dads post-birth are very different. Women are physically recovering, and when nursing, women are also up around the clock feeding the baby. Dads may pitch in, but their time off following the birth of a baby isn’t comparable to the mom’s, and is often a little like a vacation.

Just as those dreaming of a gender-role-free society have been frustrated by the results of maternity-leave mandates, they are likely to be disappointed by paternity leave as well.

— Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum.    

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