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What men want: Why is paternity leave not more in demand?

19 November 2021

The number of days that fathers take is still minimal. Why is that? On International Men’s Day, we looked for answers. 

International mens day

In recognition of International Men's day

In 2021, two developments – one large, one small – made LGT Vestra investment manager Elliott O’Brien reflect on how he would balance working life and life as a new father: The first was the pandemic. Before Covid, Elliott assumed his role would involve a few weeks’ paternity leave before returning to work, commuting every day and spending limited time with a young family, except for weekends and holidays.    

But then, with the pandemic came more flexible working patterns: “I saw friends and family having children during this time and as we all adopted more flexible working patterns, I saw the enjoyment they got from seeing their children develop in these early years whilst being able to provide more support to their partners.”

The second was a change in our firm’s employment policy: the six months equal paid parental leave. Either parent can now take up to six months of maternity or paternity leave on full pay during the first year of having or adopting a child. “By implementing it and communicating it openly to employees, LGT encourages discussions at home that otherwise wouldn’t take place,” Elliott observes. “This policy provides flexibility and enables parents and families to make decisions on what model is right for them individually, on whom takes how many weeks.” The change has enabled him to plan additional leave during the first year and spend more valuable time with his family as his daughter grows up.

With more equal rights, the distinction between the gendered separate spheres – the woman belongs to the home, the man to the public, a vestige from the Victorian upper classes – has become increasingly blurred, leaving working parents with more options and liberties than ever before. Working mothers know the stress of “having a baby and a career”, and so, increasingly, do fathers.

Paternity leave equals happier families  

The advantages of paternity leave are widely known and have been well researched: various studies say, for example, that paternity leave reduces the likelihood of parents separating, that fathers who spend time at home feel more fulfilled – in one father’s words, spending time with his children made him realise “what life is really about” – , that the vast amount of fathers taking paternity leave find it an enriching experience, that the leave strengthens the bond between a child and a father for years to come, and that it significantly reduces the risk of mothers suffering from post-natal depression. 90 out of 187 countries offer statutory paid paternity leave, and the number increases steadily. It is estimated that at least four out of every ten organisations worldwide provide paid leave above the statutory minimum.

Even though it is easier than ever for fathers to take paternity leave, the number of men taking it remains small. A 2021 study by McKinsey, for example, looked at 130 fathers across ten countries: less than half take advantage of all the leave benefits offered to them. In OECD countries, the number of days that fathers take is still minimal.

We have discovered something similar: in a small survey we conducted on LinkedIn, we asked men “How much paid leave would you like to take when becoming a father?”. Among 104 votes, the majority wishes to take “Up to three months” (42%) and “Up to one month” (21%), while the longest possible option, “Over six months”, was the least favoured option (15%). Even though these results are not representative, they point to a wide trend: very often, fathers do not want to take as much paternity leave as they are offered by the government and their company. 

Why do fathers choose not to take more paternity leave even when they can?  

The answer is deeply ingrained in our culture. Dan Churchouse, head of UK wholesale distribution at Hermes Investment Management, describes it as “ingrained in me”: “Initially, I felt guilty about taking paternity leave.” Hundreds of years of gendered separate spheres will not disappear over the course of a few years. 

In various studies and interviews, fathers explain that they do not take the full days of their paternity leave because they fear the downsides to their career. It is a tragic and somewhat ironic vicious circle: He earns more than she, so he works more than she. In a world in which gender pay gaps still prevail, the father continues to be the breadwinner. Dan puts it like this: “If the man earns more, it makes it harder to take time off.”

How employers can support fathers

Employers cannot change a whole culture by themselves, but they can try to establish the best possible framework in their journey to more equal rights. As we have seen, institutionalising paternity leave is a crucial first step, but in itself, not enough. 

Firms need to actively inform about paternity leave and encourage parents. Often, out of ignorance, employees do not know their rights or, out of fear, are hesitant to talk openly about their wishes. In an interview with BBC, researcher Sarah Forbes stressed the importance of visible fatherhood champions at companies. Professional success and dedicated parenthood must not be mutually exclusive. “Also, if managers are supportive and knowledgeable of the organisation’s offering around paternity leave and shared parental leave, this will lead to parents being more aware of what their entitlements are.” Dan agrees: “We need role models in the company and members of the upper management to take paternity leave too.” 

Dan also advocates a more open and honest communication at the workplace when it comes to perfectionism: “As working parents, we all need to move away from this fake world in which everything is easy and great all the time and be more honest when things get stressful and messy.” When working fathers openly talk about what they are struggling with, this fosters an inclusive and diverse working atmosphere, and fathers might learn from each other.

Another, important step employers can take is implementing flexible working conditions – as Elliott has observed with his friends and himself. Dan goes further: “Employers are increasingly finding that to attract the best talent they need to offer a coherent flexible working policy.” One thing that has been additive at Federated Hermes International is a supportive culture around paternity leave, which removes some of the variability on attitudes and application among line managers. “This provides comfort to management and encourages an open dialogue between line managers and direct reports so that the interests of the individual and team are aligned. The idea of working rigid 9-to-5 working hours can seem a bit outdated.”

Just like the gendered separate spheres, 9-to-5 jobs are remnants of times gone by. Maybe it’s time for us to truly arrive in the 21st century.

Find out more about paternity leave:

At LGT Vestra, we believe in contributing toward a society worth living in. Our employee-led initiative #included is central to our mission to build and champion a diverse and inclusive workforce. Find out more about our commitment to Diversity and Inclusion.

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