Paid Leave Policy Design Matters for Workplace Equality
By Richard J. Petts, Trenton D. Mize & Gayle Kaufman | October 26, 2021
The United States is closer to enacting a national paid leave policy than ever before. Congress is currently debating a national paid leave policy as part of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, and Americans are largely supportive of paid leave. Yet, at the same time, we still see workers being stigmatized for taking parental leave, exemplified by the reaction to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s decision to take paternity leave to care for his newborn children.
These two parallel stories reflect the current culture surrounding work, family, and gender in the U.S. There is high support for programs that help families, but workers are often stigmatized for using these policies. These penalties are a key source of gender inequality: women are discriminated against in paid employment due to assumptions that they will value work over family, and men are pressured to place work first, limiting their ability to be equally involved in unpaid childcare and housework.
Paid leave policies are often promoted as one way to advance gender equality. However, this will require a culture shift in the U.S. where workers are accepted – and not penalized – for taking leave.
Paid Leave vs. Commitment
In a recent study published in Social Science Research, we examined how leave policy design and workplace culture impacts perceptions of workers who take leave. In doing so, we aimed to identify ways in which leave policies could be designed to promote greater acceptance of parental leave-taking.
Specifically, we conducted a survey experiment with approximately 1,700 participants. We presented participants with a detailed description of an employee’s decision to take paid leave (or not) following the birth of a new child. The key aspect of the study involved manipulating various aspects of the leave policy (weeks of leave offered, amount of wage replacement while on leave, whether the policy is a “parental” or a gender-specific paternity/maternity leave policy, and whether the policy is a state or company policy) as well as whether the workplace culture was supportive of leave-taking. After learning of the employee’s decision about whether to take leave (and for how long), participants reported their perceptions of the leave-taking employee’s commitment to their job.
Taking Leave Affects Fathers and Mothers Differently
Results from our study showed that both mothers and fathers who take paid parental leave experience a “commitment penalty” where they are viewed as less committed to their job than employees who do not take leave. This penalty is similar for mothers and fathers. But better policies can reduce this penalty.
Both mothers and fathers who take paid parental leave experience a “commitment penalty” where they are viewed as less committed to their job than employees who do not take leave. But better policies can reduce this penalty.
Perceived commitment is higher for all workers when parents receive more weeks of paid leave and higher wage replacement while on leave. However, we find that higher paid leave, longer periods of leave offered, a gender-specific policy, and a supportive workplace have a larger effect on perceptions of fathers’ workplace commitment than mothers’ commitment. In other words, more favorable leave policies mean less of a dent in how committed fathers are perceived to be compared to mothers.
On the one hand, this suggests that implementing better paid leave policies in the U.S. may encourage more fathers to take leave. On the other hand, we find that the gender gap in perceived commitment – with fathers being viewed as more committed workers than mothers – is actually larger in contexts with more favorable leave policies than in organizations with less favorable leave policies. Thus, at least in the short-term, increasing access to better paid leave policies may actually exacerbate gender inequality within organizations by advantaging fathers more than mothers.
Policy Source Matters
We also find that that commitment penalties vary by type of policy. For fathers, public paid leave polices (state-level policies in our study) are more effective in reducing commitment penalties than company paid leave policies. For mothers, the opposite is true; company paid leave policies are more effective in reducing commitment penalties than public policies.
It may be that company paid leave policies are seen as evidence of support for workers, which could increase perceived commitment for mothers given that they are more likely to be viewed as primary caregivers. In contrast, public policies may help to reduce the widespread stigma associated with leave-taking for fathers.
Will Less Stigma Lead to Greater Gender Equality?
Increasing access to paid parental leave is essential in the United States, one of only a few countries without a national paid leave policy. Yet, results from our study provide important insights into how paid leave policies in the U.S. may matter for broader patterns of gender inequality.
A policy providing U.S. workers with 12 weeks of paid parental leave will help to increase perceived commitment for all workers, but may disproportionately benefit men. Because mothers are expected to prioritize family and engage in intensive parenting regardless of access to paid leave, the stigmatizing view that women are less committed workers may persist. However, because men are not expected to take long periods of leave in the U.S. (and are often criticized for doing so, as the case of Pete Buttigieg illustrates), a national paid leave policy may actually work to make leave-taking more accepted for men in particular.
Because men are not expected to take long periods of leave in the U.S., a national paid leave policy may actually work to make leave-taking more accepted for men in particular.
When fathers take longer parental leave, they are more likely to be highly involved in their children’s lives and share parenting responsibilities with mothers. Thus, increased father involvement may enable mothers to better focus on their careers. Additionally, if it becomes widely expected that both mothers and fathers will take paid parental leave, then we might expect gendered differences in perceived workplace commitment to dissipate over time.
Overall, our results suggesting that fathers benefit more from paid leave policies than mothers in regard to perceived job commitment may be concerning to those fighting for greater gender equality. However, if leave-taking becomes more normative and accepted within workplaces, providing time for fathers to be engaged at home and for both parents to better balance work and family life, we believe that increasing access to paid leave will ultimately promote greater gender equality for all.
Richard J. Petts is a Professor of Sociology at Ball State University. Follow him on Twitter @pettsric.
Trenton D. Mize is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University. Follow him on Twitter @MizeTrenton.
Gayle Kaufman is Nancy and Erwin Maddrey Professor of Sociology and Gender & Sexuality Studies at Davidson College, and author of Fixing Parental Leave: The Six-Month Solution(NYU Press). Follow them on Twitter @gakaufman22.