Many men say they are reluctant to take paternity leave because they fear it will hurt their careers. But a new study of workplaces in Norway suggests that companies can alleviate this concern by strongly encouraging new fathers to take time off.
As numerous studies have shown, the social and personal benefits of paternity leave are numerous. Fathers and their children come together for a long time.
If universal paternity leave were to become the norm, it could also be expected to alleviate some of the burden that has taken its toll on many working mothers, allowing them to better balance their own careers and parenthood. .
While paid paternity leave is common in many countries, it is not mandatory in most of the United States. That could change: President Biden has proposed nationally mandatory 12-week parental, family and personal sick leave – of which paternity leave would be a part – in his U.S. plan for families.
But the Norwegian example suggests that while making paid paternity leave accessible to all is critically important, it is only a first step. Even with the door open, many men will only walk through it if it is compatible with staying in the fast lane at work.
Norway provides most of the best evidence on men’s career patterns after paternity leave, thanks to a major policy change in that country in 1993. Fathers of children born after April 1 of that year are became eligible for four weeks of use or full loss of paid parental leave. As a result, the share of fathers taking leave jumped to 50 percent, from around 5 percent.
A study by two economists published in 2013 found that Norwegian men’s wages increased more slowly if they took paternity leave. The researchers estimated that five years later, the men were earning 2% less than if they had not taken the leave. This persistent loss of income helps explain why many eligible men forfeited the benefit.
A new study by economists Hyejin Ku of University College London and Julian Johnsen and Kjell Salvanes of the Norwegian School of Economics has revisited the Norwegian case to understand why this wage gap exists.
One hypothesis was that a worker’s skills rusted while he was on leave, making him less productive when he returned. A second plausible explanation was that after bonding with his children during paternity leave, the father became less focused on his work and made less effort.
The new working paper from Ms Ku, Mr Johnsen and Mr Salvanes finds that something else is happening: the short time away from the office gives colleagues a small advantage over the leave takers who appear in promotions and other benefits in the workplace.
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The new study came to this conclusion by re-examining the 1993 policy in Norway, but with a twist. The researchers looked at cases where, coincidentally, a man’s “competitors” at work all took paternity leave at around the same time. The study defined a man’s likely competitors as male colleagues of similar education and age; many of them had children around the same time.
Surprisingly, if the contestants were also on time off, the setback in a man’s career due to time off was negligible. It’s when a man takes time off but his competitors don’t that his earnings suffer.
If the cause of the pay gap had nothing to do with competition – if men’s skills atrophy or if they choose to prioritize their careers less – they should have earned less afterwards, little. no matter what their colleagues were doing.
We might not commonly call our fellow competitors, but in a sense they are often just that, and not just in Norway. For example, a study found that in Italy, the careers of young workers came to a halt when a change in pensions caused senior colleagues to postpone retirement. On a more morbid note, another study found that in Germany, workers benefited from a pay rise after the unexpected death of coworkers.
Even if not consciously understood, this competition for scarce advancement opportunities means that workers can be stuck in some sort of arms race, requiring them to always be present at work. A father chooses to forgo paternity leave to avoid being marginalized. Its competitor makes the same choice. They are standing shoulder to shoulder for a promotion, but they also would have been shoulder to shoulder – even happier – if both had taken time off.
Counterintuitively, removing people’s freedom of choice by forcing them to take time off could improve them. This would force them, figuratively speaking, to lay down their arms and spend more time at home with their children.
Forcing people to take time off they don’t want can be unacceptable. A less burdensome version of the same idea, with a similar economic logic, would be for companies to strongly encourage paternity leave, perhaps by paying more generously to those who took it.
A virtuous circle could begin. Once more workers took time off, the penalty for doing so could be negligible or nonexistent, so more people took it. Any social stigma attached to taking leave would also dissipate.
Companies would help the careers of their employees if they created a new standard around paternity leave. For the same reasons of competition and stigma in the workplace, a smaller gender gap in parental leave would be good for women’s careers.
One concrete step that senior executives could take would be to lead by example, as Alexis Ohanian of Reddit and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook prominently did. The tech industry has sometimes been at the forefront with paternity leave, and research in Norway offers a new perspective on why many tech companies are growing rapidly, so they have more room. for employees to rise through the ranks. When career advancement is less zero-sum among colleagues, the paternity leave penalty is naturally lower.
The lesson from the Norwegian study is not that we need to accelerate the growth of every business. It is because there is no fundamental reason why paternity leave should harm a man’s career. The solution is not only to make paid paternity leave a legal mandate, but to encourage it enough so that it becomes commonplace.
Seema Jayachandran is Professor of Economics at Northwestern University. Follow her on Twitter: @seema_econ