My wife and I have had endless conversations about our roles as parents once we have kids. One of the primary subjects is who will stay home with the kids when they are first born, and for how long.
At first, we thought it made the most sense to have Erin take the bulk of our government-issued one-year parental leave (the benefits of living in Canada). But is that really the best way to do things? What impact does that have on her career? On my career? On our lives as parents, and most importantly, our child?
So, we did some research and some thinking, and the answer in short: equal leave, or at least, the opportunity and equal financial incentive for equal leave, may be best for everyone - parents, child, employee, employer, society.
Allow me to explain in a quickly-formed analogy involving... water buffalo:
Imagine two herds of buffalo — 100 animals in each. Both herds are standing the same distance from a watering hole about a kilometer away. This particular watering hole happens to be relatively small. There's only space for ten buffalo to fit and take a drink at the same time.
Suddenly, both herds realize their thirst and start running towards the watering hole. Equal in speed and endurance, the buffalo race to be one of the first ten to arrive and earn a spot to drink.
About a quarter of the way into the race, some buffalo from the first herd start to slow down. They notice other ways to quench their thirst, like from juicy plants instead. Some of these buffalo take prolonged breaks, choosing to graze on the plants indefinitely and never think about the watering hole again. Others stop briefly and then choose to partially return to the race, equally valuing hydration from the plants and the chance at the watering hole.
Buffalo from the second herd almost never stop. They are focused on one thing, and that is getting to the watering hole. A small number of buffalo briefly slow to taste the plants, but they believe deep down that the watering hole is the way to quench thirst.
In the end, the final ten spots around the watering hole are heavily favoured towards the second herd. These buffalo ran well and didn't waver. A minority of spots are earned by only the strongest and most determined of buffalo from the first herd who enjoyed plants along the way.
The watering hole's ten spots have far more Herd 2 buffalo than Herd 1.
In case it wasn't blatantly obvious, 'men' are the second herd. And, the 'watering hole' is the loosely defined as career ambition. Mostly, (being careful not to blanket stereotype here) men dedicate their lives to reaching 'the watering hole' and in the end are defined by it.
'Women', however, are the first herd. The watering hole (career) is important, and for some women is their sole focus, but fortunately many more women than men are able to see value in defining their lives around family ('plants', in this analogy) as well.
The result? More men make it to 'the watering hole' than women, based simply on the fact that many more men define themselves on career ambition rather than being primarily fathers or caregivers.
While this may be a mass oversimplification, and I don't want to understate the very real and negative impacts of overt and subtle sexism in the workplace, at least one leading economist from Harvard, Claudia Goldin, believes that men's desire to pursue career over all else is the leading contributor to the gender pay gap.
According to Goldin, she hasn't found any 'smoking gun' of sexism that is holding women back. What she has discovered though is that women tend to pursue careers that have more 'temporal flexibility'. They look for jobs where they can have the mental flexibility to focus on things other than work, like for instance, tending to a child or raising a family. Men on the other hand are willing to sacrifice temporal flexibility for more career advancement.
So even though a man and a woman may have equal education and equal years of experience, the man may choose the job at the company that makes him work nights and weekends on a whim, and gets paid accordingly. However, the woman may choose the company with the more reliable 9-5 where she can be home to be with the kids, and in turn earns less for her desire for flexibility. Repeat this general gender preference over millions of individuals and you get the gender pay gap. Equal education, equal experience, unequal pay.
To date, we as a society have attempted to address this gap with programs and incentives aimed at encouraging and enabling more women to 'lean in'. It seems every employer and academic institution will have a 'women in X' group to mentor more women to pursue the career option as well as the motherhood option. These programs are undoubtedly a positive thing for women, families, and society overall.
However, in my opinion, we have completely overlooked a huge opportunity to increase equality by encouraging, enabling, and perhaps even forcing men to focus on fatherhood. In other words, we need more men to stop running to the watering hole and start trying the plants. We can't possibly expect to achieve equality in the professional world if so many more male buffalo are running for the watering hole than the female buffalo.
There are many factors at play here that keep men from becoming fathers the same way women become mothers. They are cultural — men don't want to take time off because they believe their employer isn't supportive even when paternity leave is offered. They are structural — my work gives 3 to 6 weeks for new fathers but new mothers get 17 weeks. And, they are familial — the Canadian government gives the mother 17 weeks of leave plus 35 weeks of shared leave between the mother and father, meaning that for every week a father wishes to take, he must directly take it from the mother, creating an impossible negotiation that may default into 'the mother gets the leave' traditional gender roles. Yes women need more leave for health reasons, but this shouldn't negate the father from getting equal opportunity to experience parenthood and in turn care for his wife while she is recovering.
These factors together tend to keep men in the workplace driving towards the watering hole. Mentally we lean towards career ambition over family ambition as seen through our willingness to abandon temporal flexibility and our reluctance to take paternity leave even when it is offered. Financially we aren't granted the same leave as mothers making the decision to take prolonged leave a more harmful choice than it is for women. Both emotionally and logically, the proposition of a father taking equal or even greater leave than his partner is simply not an option.
However, the research overwhelmingly confirms that giving men increased leave benefits both children and mothers in many ways. From a Harvard Kennedy School article the future income of new mothers rises 7% for every month of leave her husband takes. The World Economic Forum also released a report saying that countries that provide paternity leave are the most successful in closing the wage gap between men and women. For children, men who take leave are more likely to help out with child rearing and their children tend to do better in school.
If we were to hypothesize, what impact might equal parenting roles for men and women have on other more negative stereotypes associated with men? How might rates of sexual abuse, criminality, suicide, and depression change for men if they saw themselves primarily as a caregiver to a partner and children as opposed to a more one-dimensional breadwinner whose sole focus in on career ambition? This might be a utopian view, but there are clear differences between men and women in these areas and parenting may be a key reason for that.
So back to my wife and me. How do we divide our parenting roles if we both equally value our careers as well? The answer is becoming clearer that taking equal leave may be the best route forward for everyone. However, while Erin and I may be mentally and emotionally prepared for equal leave, structurally there are still obstacles. In the workplace, I am not granted equal leave to my wife, making the financial decision to take prolonged leave a much more difficult one. Furthermore, it is still unclear how an employer will feel about me 'taking the daddy track' and it could hold me back.
The only way to overcome these obstacles is to start the conversation. I have reached out to my employer and they are actively engaged to provide equal leave for men. Employers and governments need to create policies that do not differentiate based on gender. Men need to overcome their mental blocks and understand that the career ladder is not everything. There are other ways to find value in life, we just need to stop and smell the roses.